In book club we’ve finished Jane Austen’s Persuasion and have moved on to Pride and Prejudice.
I first read this novel when I was 17 for English in my final year at high school. I’d started at a new school and knew no one, and P&P was like a light shining through the cracks of what was otherwise a lonely time. Over the years I’ve re-read it so many times my copy is falling apart; this time round I’m reading it on my ipad instead. It’s one of my favourite books of all time and I’m so excited to be reading it again with book club.
For my first P&P inspired cook, I couldn’t go past White Soup – or Regency White Soup as it’s sometimes called – when Bingley declares he’ll choose the date for the Netherfield Ball as soon as the white soup is made.
If Mr Bingley was looking to impress his guests, white soup was the way to go.
In Regency times white foods such as white flour and sugar were expensive to produce and procure and were, therefore, status symbols. It follows that with a (relatively) complex recipe and long list of expensive ingredients, white soup showed the financial worth of the household even more effectively than Mrs Long’s gossip.
Sometimes called Potage à la Reyne or Queen’s Pottage (Soup), the oldest recipe for this soup dates to the mid 1600’s – although it was probably made even earlier than that, in medieval times when almonds were used extensively in food.
As for pinning down the most authentic recipe? That’s a tad more problematic.:
The stock could have been made from chicken, veal, mutton or ham bones – or a combination thereof. Some recipes used starches such as rice or vermicelli, others none at all. Many used cream or milk, and most used ground almonds and bread, but some not at all. Finally, most use a combo of leeks, carrot and celery to flavour the stock, and many also use mace – which was, according to Elizabeth David in Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, one of the most important spices: “the hundred per cent traditional, invariable and indispensable spice…”
(In case you haven’t come across mace before, it’s the lacy outer layer of the nutmeg which was dried and then ground into spice. In Regency times as a powder it was cheaper than nutmeg – these days it’s the other way around.)
Nigella does a cheat’s version of white soup in How To Eat. I cooked and subsequently wrote about that one here. She calls it Cream of Chicken soup. It’s rich, luxurious and bears absolutely no resemblance to the version you can buy condensed in a can. It’s also easy to make with very little of the faff that would have been involved in making Netherfield’s version.
I wanted, however, something a little more traditional.
The Harrods Book of Traditional English Cookery calls their recipe Almond Soup. Thickened with both ground almonds and egg yolks, it’s also served with toasted flaked almonds.
In his book, Jane Austen’s Table – recipes inspired by the works of Jane Austen, Robert Tuesley Anderson simplifies the recipe.
In his version eggs, parmesan, breadcrumbs and nutmeg are whisked into hot chicken stock. The soup is served with basil leaves and extra parmesan and is similar to the Italian stracciatella soup.
Finally, I went to the source that Jane Austen herself might have consulted – Martha Lloyd. Martha Lloyd was a dear friend of Jane’s and was one of the few people who not only knew about her writing but had also been shown the early manuscript for what became P&P.
Food historian Julienne Gehrer has reproduced Martha’s recipes in Martha Lloyd’s Household Book.
Her white soup recipe is simple:
Make your gravy of any kind of Meat, add to it the yolks of four Eggs boiled hard & pounded very fine, 2 oz of sweet Almond pounded, as much Cream as will make of it a good Color.
As Gehrer points out though, there was another white soup recipe within the Austen family – this one from The Knight Family Cookbook (c. 1793). This one contains vermicelli.
As for the recipe I used? I went with this one, although I didn’t use veal bones, choosing to keep instead to chicken. I also substituted the mace (which isn’t available at my local supermarket) with grated nutmeg. The way I figured it, it comes from the same fruit…
While the recipe was long and had to be started the day before we’d be eating, it wasn’t difficult and was worth taking my time over. The stock bubbled away on the stove while I got onto the cleaning. The result was an elegant soup with plenty of layers of flavour. I served it in the posh plates on the posh tablecloth as part of a posher than usual Saturday night dinner with a very posh red wine.
I think Jane would have been proud.