I realised over the past week that I had not written about Jane Austen and Food for some time…so I’ve decided to make amends  for that by  giving you a detailed history of that most intriguing of dishes from Pride and Prejudice, White Soup.

White Soup is, I suppose, one of the most famous food dishes in Jane Austen’s works, almost on a par with Mr Woodhouse’s gruel. Virtually unknown today, we hear about it because in Pride and Prejudice the genial Mr Bingley famously and much to the chagrin of his sisters, informs the robust Lydia Bennet that she shall name the day for the Netherfield ball

once Nicholls has made white soup enough

White soup originated in 17th century France. Then known as Pottage a la Reine ( Queen’s Soup)  it was  a slightly different dish to that served to Charles Bingley’s guests and produced by the quart by the indefatigable Nicholls.

The first known recipe for this most aristocratic of soups is to be found in the cookery book, Le Cuisinier François (1651) written by Francois Pierre, known as  La Varenne,  who was chef to the Marquis of Uxelles. This was translated into English in 1653, and this is the frontispiece from that first English edition:

His recipe is as follows:

Get almonds. Grind them and set them to boil with good bouillon, along with a bouquet of herbs, a bit of lemon pulp and a little breadcrumb;  then season that with salt.  Take care they don’t burn, stirring them frequently and strain them. Then get your bread and simmer it in the best bouillon you have. After you have deboned some roast partridge of capon get some good bouillon, cook all of the bones with a few mushroom and strain everything through a cloth. Simmer your bread in the bouillon and as it is simmering sprinkle it with the almond milk, and with meat stock then add in a little chopped partridge flesh or capon until it is full. Then get the fire shovel, heat it to red hot and pass it over the top. Garnish your pottage with cockscombs,pistachios pomegranate seeds and neat stock.Then serve.

The decoration of dishes with pomegranate and pistachios-very rare and expensive ingredients in the 17th century- was a common feature of court cookery of the time.

For example, here is a winter salad as ordered  by Robert May in his book, The Accomplish’d Cook (1660)

complete with sprinkled pomegranate and nuts

And a rosemary “tree” covered in white snow (egg white,whipp’t)

John Thacker, the cook to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral  gives interesting directions for dressing and serving the soup in his book, The Art of Cookery (1758).(Do note you can enlarge all the illustrations in this post by clicking on them)

This is how Ivan Day,the wonderful food historian of Historic Food , and whose courses I love to attend, has interpreted it.

Rather faithfully, I think you will agree.(and I thank Ivan for  his kind permission to use his images here).

Here is the heated shovel as recommended by La Varenne, as used by Ivan

Another way to do this would be to use a salamander


Here is one heating up in the roaring fire of Ivan’s Cumbrian kitchen

And here it is in use giving a toasted finish to some stuffed tomatoes which I helped cook on Ivan’s Regency Cookery Course I attended in 2009. This as you can see is a ferociously dangerous cooking method. Luckily for Nicholls it was not required to be used in recipes by the time she was preparing her soup.

Elizabeth Raffald

in her book The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769)

gives a variant on the original French recipe

William Verral, the famous  innkeeper of the White Hart Inn in Lewes in Sussex in his cookery book of 1759, The Complete System of Cookery, gives this disarming but very honest title to his recipe for the soup ; Queen’s Soup, What Queen I Know Not.(!)

By the time we get to Jane Austen’s era, and around the time of the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813, the recipe has altered further. Here is Frederick Nutt’s

recipe from his book The Imperial and Royal Cook etc (1809)

And it was not only the swankiest cookery books that gave recipes for White Soup. Our friend, Mrs Rundell gives these recipes for two variants of white soup,

in her book,  A New System of Domestic Cookery (1816)

If you would care to make your own version of  White Soup, here is a modern equivalent of the soup adapted from Eliza Acton’s recipe (dating from 1845-a long time after our era as you can see)quoted by Jane Grigson in her book, Food with the Famous .

White Soup

2 ½ points of veal or light beef stock.

2oz blanched almonds

10z white bread, weighed without crusts

1 egg yolk

¼ pint each double and soured cream or milk Salt, pepper,

lemon juice,

Cayenne pepper

2 oz toasted or fried almonds to garnish.

Serves 6

To make the soup, put the almonds and bread into a blender, add some of the stock and liquidize to a smooth paste.

Using a sieve, strain into the remaining stock, pushing through as much as you can. Beat the egg yolk with the creams or cream and milk and add to the soup. If possible leave for an hour or two; this will improve and mellow the flavour.

Reheat, keeping the soup well below boiling point so as not to curdle the egg. Add salt, pepper, lemon juice and Cayenne pepper to taste and bring out the flavour.

Serve garnished with almonds.

Because Mr Bingley served white Soup at the Netherfield Ball, and because Miss Bates says wonderingly of the supper served at the Crown Inn Ball in Emma

Dear Jane, how shall we ever recollect half the dishes for grandmamma? Soup too! Bless me! I should not be helped so soon, but it smells most excellent, and I cannot help beginning.

it is sometimes assumed that soup is de rigueur at balls in this era. However, I have poured over my extensive collection of cookery books dating from the late 18th and early 19th century and I have only ever found one list of recommended dished to be served at a ball, and that is from William Henderson’s The Housekeepers Instructor,14th edition dating from 1807.

The Housewife’s Instructor was first written by William Henderson. It was a best seller and appeared in many editions. This revision overseen by Jacob Christopher Schnebblie contained his suggestions for a ball supper suitable for twenty people.

Jacob Christopher Schnebbelie had been the principal cook at Melun’s Hotel in Bath and Martelli’s Restaurant at The Albany, in Piccadilly, London.

This is his portrait from the frontispiece to his edition of The Housewife’s Instructor. You can clearly see the entrance to the  Albany below him.

This place is still in existence: here is another view of it taken from inside the courtyard circa 1820.

The Albany has, of course, a connection with Jane Austen, in that Henry Austen’s bank’s offices and headquarters were at Number 1, the Courtyard at The Albany between the years 1804-1807. The building was divided into a series of apartments which were inhabited by officers, professional men and unmarried members of the aristocracy and the gentry. It was (and still is ) a  fearsomely smart address.

Here are the for dishes for the first course:

Note the absence of soup in any form.  If someone as smart as Schnebbelie did not include soup as a matter of course for a ball supper, then no wonder that Miss Bates was pleased by the appearance of soup at the Crown: it must have been a superior spread indeed, and this evidence suggests to me that soup at a ball was the exception and not the rule.  It is clear therefore that Mr Bingley (and Mr Weston) were characteristically  most generous hosts ;-)