Baked Soup: the Cheek of it

“Baked Soup” sounds like a film sequel the Marx Bros. never made; it’s actually a recipe of the English tavern kitchen, c. 1800.

It’s a beer-related dish, too, from a period somewhat earlier than I normally address – Victorian until 1970s. And needless to say, it offers good interest.

The full title is Ox Cheek Soup Baked. The odd conjunction of the terms soup and baked immediately drew my eye, but all came clear in due course.

Richard Briggs published his The English Art of Cookery, According to the Present Practice, etc. in 1788. There was a second edition, and multiple printings.

The book was undoubtedly influential including in the fledgling United States where it was issued for example in Philadelphia.

A Wikipedia sketch offers good background on the book itself. There seems little biographical material on Richard Briggs, however. It is known he was a chef, working in City London at different establishments, taverns and later a coffee shop.

The tavern as a genre specialized in wine with beer not omitted, and also food. Many qualified as restaurants per se, or in time they did. The Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street is perhaps the best-known survival of the old-school.

Inferentially from his book, Briggs’ taverns offered a selection of English, French-style, and more obviously foreign dishes.* It’s quite an impressive range in fact, and well-organized.

Here is Briggs’ recipe:

Take half an ox head and cut the cheek clean from the bones, break the bones and lay them in a large pan of water all day to foak the blood out; then wash them clean and put them in an earthen pan, and cover them with water, and put a fpoonful of all-spice four onions, a carrot, two turneps, four heads of cellery, two leeks well washed, a bundle of fweet herbs, fome pepper and salt, two or three bay leaves, and a pint of mild ale or beer, not porter, tie it over with ftrong paper, put it in the oven after dinner, and let it ftay in all night; in the morning take it out, and if it is not tender enough, after you heat the oven put it in again till you think it is done; then take the cheek out of the foup, and ftrain it through a fieve to fettle, fkim off all the fat, and pour it from the fettlings into a pan, and put the cheek to keep hot (if it wants any feafoning put fome in); put the cheek in a foup-dilh, and pour the foup over it, with a handful of toafted bread. A leg of beef done in the fame manner is very good.

Beef cheek has been revived in our day in fashionable restaurants, an obscure, decidedly rich cut needing careful cooking. As Briggs suggests, shin of beef would work well too. The gelatinous texture will dissolves with long cooking.

You could also use brisket, and other cuts. The meat is laid on a lattice of bones, easy to find at the butcher and even supermarkets if you look, or ask.

Now the beer. Note he specifies to exclude porter. His mild ale would have been (relatively) low-hopped, and his beer was probably small beer (mentioned in the brewing section), also low-hopped. Like love in that Who song, small beer ain’t for keeping.

The direction to use mild ale or small beer likely was meant to avoid excess bitterness in the dish. Porter, aka stout today, was notably a bitter beer then, although not so much today.

The recipe is notable not so much for specifying the type of beer to use, but specifying a type not to use.

It sounds quite fine for the cool nippy weather we have now. In Paris 30 years ago we ate boiled beef served with the consommé in a tureen. Briggs’ dish, given his interest in French gastronomy, was probably a riff on this, using beer instead of a verre de rouge.

Amazingly, 30 years later, the restaurant still operates, Le Roi du Pot au Feu. I learned this on my last visit earlier this year, and so much wanted to go, but it was in a different section of the city (the 9th, rue Vignon) and we couldn’t do it.

Pots of greyish Breton salt were placed on our red white checkered tablecloth,** Dijon mustard, and good bread. Also, if I recall correctly, unlabeled bottles of red wine; you took what you wanted and were charged accordingly.

Briggs’ version is not hard to make, requiring only some patience for what is evidently a long slow bake. Probably overnight is not needed today, just a few hours.

If anyone tries it, let me know how you make out.

N.B. By the mid-1800s some City taverns were known for beer as much as, and perhaps more than, wine. Peter Cunningham’s contemporary A Handbook for London listed two Fleet Street taverns, the Rainbow and the Cock, as haunts for fine porter or stout.

It is likely the porter garlanded by an American visitor as described in the last post was drawn at one of these.

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*The foreign group includes early curries, and Spanish and Jewish ways with fish.

**Here is the type of salt, from an American supplier.