Turtle Soup

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Turning to turtle: how Mrs Beeton catered for the aspirations of her readers

The impossible recipe is commonplace today. The bestselling cookbooks by Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria (to name only the most blatant examples) contain nothing else. But weird concoctions of recondite or massively expensive ingredients cooked in a complex and fiddly fashion are nothing new. Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) contains one notorious example designed to appeal to the aspirational tendencies of her mainly lower middle-class. (Employing their own cooks, the higher orders would have no need of a volume with over 2,000 recipes.) Prohibitively costly and complex to manufacture, turtle soup was an aspiration too far. The recipe omits the problems that the cook would undoubtedly encounter when attempting to dispatch the living creature. Still, Isabella’s devotees could read it and dream. It scarcely mattered that the instructions were as opaque as they were long-winded. The concluding note on the green turtle hints at authorial qualms about slaughtering such creatures that ‘live harmlessly and peaceably together’. The manifold problems and expense involved in turtle soup prompted the  invention of mock turtle soup (the recipe is also in Household Management) based on veal. This explains why Tenniel’s illustration of the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland combines a turtle’s shell and fins with a bovine head, hooves and tail.

Mrs Beeton’s turtle soup (founded on M.Ude’s Recipe)

To make this soup with less difficulty, cut off the head of the turtle the preceding day. In the morning open the turtle by leaning heavily on with a knife on the shell of the animal’s back, whilst you cut this off all round. Turn it upright on its today end, that all the water, &c, may run out, when the flesh should be cut off along the spine, with the knife sloping towards the bones, for fear of touching the gall, which sometimes might escape the eye. When all the flesh about the members is obtained, wash these clean, and let them drain. Have ready, on the fire, a large vessel full of boiling water, into which put the shells; and when you perceive that they come easily off, take them out of the water, and prick them all over, with those of the back, belly, fins, head, &c. Boil the back and belly until the bones can be taken off, without, however, allowing the softer parts to be sufficiently done, as they will be boiled again in the soup. When these latter come off easily, lay them on earthen dishes singly, for fear they should stick together, and put them to cool. Keep the liquor in which you have blanched the softer parts, and let the bones stew thoroughly in it, as this liquor must be used to moisten all the sauces.

All the flesh of the interior parts, the four legs and head, must be drawn down in the following manner:- Lay six slices of ham on the bottom of a very large stewpan, over them two knuckles of veal, and over the whole the memoers. Now moisten with the water in which you are boiling the shell, and draw it down thoroughly. It may now be ascertained if it be thoroughly done by thrusting a knite into the fleshy part of the meat. If no blood appears it is time to moisten it again with the liquor in which the bones, &c, have been boiling. Put in a large bunch of all such sweet herbs as are used in the cooking of a turtle – sweet basil, sweet marjoram, lemon thyme, winter savory, 2 or 3 bay leaves, common thyme, a handful of parsley and green onions, and a large onion stuck with 6 cloves. Let the whole be thoroughly done. With respect to the members, probe them to see if they are done, and if so, drain and send them to the larder, as they are to make their appearance only when the soup is absolutely completed. When the flesh is also completely done, strain it through a silk sieve, and make a very thin white roux; for turtle soup must not be much thickened…

The Cost of Turtle Soup

This is the most expensive soup brought to the table. It is sold by the quart – one guinea [£1.05p] being the standard price from that quantity. The prices of live turtle ranges from 8d [3p] to 2 shillings [10p] per pound… While live turtle is dear, many cooks use the tinned turtle, which is killed when caught, and preserved in hermetically-sealed canisters, and so sent over to England. The cost of a tin, containing 2 quarts or 4 pounds is about £2 and for a small one, containing the green fat 7s 6d [37.5p]. From these about 6 quarts of good soup may be made.

The Green Turtle

The reptile is found in large numbers on the coasts of all the islands and continents within the tropics, in both the old and new worlds. Their length is often five feet and upwards, and they range in weight from 50 to 500 or 600 pounds, as turtles find a constant supply of food on the coasts where they frequent, they are not of a quarrelsome disposition. Like other species of amphibia, they have the power of living many months without food; so that they live harmlessly and peaceably together, notwithstanding that they seem to have no common bond of association, but merely assemble in the same places as if entirely by accident. England is mostly supplied with them from the West Indies, whence turtle is highly prized on account of the delicious quality of its flesh, the fat of the upper and lower shields of the animal being esteemed the richest and most delicate parts. The soup, however, is apt to disagree with weak stomachs. As an article of luxury, the turtle has only come into fashion within the last hundred years, and some hundreds of tureens of turtle soup are served annually at the Lord Mayor’s dinner in Guildhall.