The chef with a social conscience

Alexis Benoit Soyer was born in France in 1810 and trained as a cook. In 1830 he moved to London, where he became chef to the Duke of Cambridge and then chef at the Reform Club. Despite his associations with the rich and famous, his highly developed social conscience led him to write to the press in 1847 voicing his distress about the starvation resulting from the potato famine in Ireland.

He went to Dublin, where he built kitchens from which he sold simple meals to the poor at minimal prices. He wrote ‘Soyer’s Charitable Cookery’, giving part of the proceeds to charities. He invented a lightweight portable stove to be used in remote and difficult locations, such as field hospitals. He became an expert in developing cheap, easy-to-cook recipes for wholesome, palatable food from basic ingredients; he later wrote ‘A Shilling Cookery Book for the People’.

In February 1855 Soyer travelled to the Crimea at his own expense to support the army, who at this time were malnourished and scurvy-ridden. A soldier’s daily ration was 1lb of army biscuit and 1lb of meat, but there were supply problems, no efficient catering system (each soldier had to cook for himself) – and no fuel to cook with. First Soyer revised the diet sheets and recipes for the hospitals at Scutari and Constantinople, using his portable stove to prepare food (see our picture HS157). During two visits to Balaclava he, Florence Nightingale and the medical staff re-organised the hospitals. He also cooked for the 4th Division of the army.

He returned to London in May 1857, and died in 1858.

Here are two of Soyer’s recipes for the troops, taken from letters he wrote to The Times while he was at Scutari:

STEWED SALT BEEF AND PORK A LA OMAR PASHA

Put into a canteen saucepan about 2lb of well soaked beef, cut in eight pieces; ½lb of salt pork, divided in two, and also soaked; ½lb of rice, or six tablespoonsful; ½lb of onions, or four middle-sized ones, peeled and sliced; 2oz of brown sugar, or one large tablespoonful; ¼oz of pepper, and five pints of water; simmer gently for three hours, remove the fat from the top and serve. The first time I made the above was in Sir John Campbell’s soup kitchen, situated on the top of his rocky cavern, facing Sebastopol, near Cathcart’s-hill, and among the distinguished pupils I had upon the occasion were Colonel Wyndham, Sir John Campbell, and Dr Hall, Inspector-General of the Army in the Crimea, and other officers. This dish was much approved at dinner, and is enough for six people, and if the receipt be closely followed you cannot fail to have an excellent food. The London salt meat will only require a four hours soaking, having been only lightly pickled.

COSSACKS’ PLUM PUDDING

Put into a basin 1lb of flour, ¾lb of raisins (stoned, if time be allowed), ¾lb of the fat of salt pork (well washed, cut into small dies, or chopped), two tablespoonsful of sugar or treacle; add a half pint of water; mix all together; put into a cloth tied tightly; boil for four hours, and serve. If time will not admit, boil only two hours, though four are preferable. How to spoil the above:- Add anything to it.

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