Mock Turtle Soup: A Victorian Treat

September 13, 2013

Mock-turtle

“Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?”

No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is

It’s the thing a Mock Turtle soup is made from,” said the Queen.

This is one of the most famous scenes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but like Alice, very few people today know just what a mock turtle is.

Turtle soup has always been regarded as a delicacy, and it is still eaten in Singapore, China, and other countries.

In Europe, green turtle soup was an essential ingredient at ceremonial dinners during Victorian times. It was always served at the Lord Mayor’s banquet.

The soup contained turtle meat and the inner lining of the shell. It was very expensive, as the ingredients had to be imported.

In America, turtle soup was President William Howard Taft’s favorite food. Demand for turtles was high—at one point the U.S. imported 15,000 turtles a year from the Cayman Islands.

As a result of the demand for turtles, the population dwindled dramatically, and it is now illegal in many areas to catch turtles for cooking.

Due to the high cost, very few people even in Victorian times could afford to serve turtle soup.

Cooks came up with an ingenious alternative—mock turtle soup, which contained a variety of secret ingredients mixed together to give the appearance of turtle soup.

Alice would have been very familiar with mock turtle soup. Victorians created it in large batches and ate it often, particularly at dinner parties. It was very popular as an appetizer or main course.

A Victorian-era cookbook called Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management provided a recipe for Mock Turtle soup which was eagerly followed by housewives and cooks. Turtles are not required.

Instead, the recipe called for 2 cow heels, a calf’s head, and balls of forcemeat (veal, suet, bread, and spices), plus spices, onions, ham stock, and a glass of sherry.

The calf’s head had to be cleaned, with all the meat, including the brain and tongue, chopped into pieces. All the ingredients had to be stewed for six hours.

The resulting soup was regarded as a great delicacy and would have been an essential ingredient at the dinner table, especially when guests were present.

Demand for mock turtle soup dropped with the onset of the First World War. The Campbell Soup company produced a canned version for some years, but it was discontinued long ago.

Mock turtle soup is no longer served in many restaurants, but it’s easy to make at home. This recipe pays homage to Victorian flavors, but it’s updated for modern palates. Enjoy it at your next Alice in Wonderland dinner party.

Mock Turtle Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 lb. beef (chuck roast, rump roast, pot roast, or stew meat), cut into bite-size chunks
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 white or yellow onions, diced
  • 2 spears celery, diced
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 2 quarts water
  • 6 crumbled gingersnap cookies
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 3 Tbsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into thin slices
  • sherry

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a large pot.

2. Add the meat in batches, cooking until just browned. Set meat aside.

3. Stir the flour into the oil that remains in the pot. Stir continuously over medium heat until the flour cooks and turns into a dark brown roux, adding oil as necessary.

4. Add onions and celery, stirring continuously and cooking until onions are transparent.

5. Return beef to pot. Add stock, tomato paste, water, gingersnaps, and spices.

6. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer one to two hours, until meat is tender.

7. When serving, top each bowl with a splash of sherry and a few slices of hard-boiled egg.


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