Monday, June 18, 2007

Turtle Season.

Today, June 18th

The Corporation of the City of London held a banquet on this day in 1814 for the “Allied Sovereigns” – the Prince Regent (later George IV), The Emperor of Russia (Tsar Alexander I), and the King of Prussia (Friedrich Wilhelm III). Seven hundred guests sat down to a dinner “as sumptuous as expense or skill could make it ….”.

It was more than an excuse for a good nosh-up of course:

“This, indeed, and similar occurrences, are not to be considered as mere festive parties; they are, when connected with their causes and consequences, political events of no small moment, the memory of which will remain so long as the present generation exists, and the record of them will form a part of the history of the unions of the Empire which the Sovereigns respectively are born to govern.”

Unfortunately, the record of this occasion of dinner-table diplomacy does not include the complete details of the menu - or if it did they have so far eluded me - but it did include mention of one essential dish for such events:

“Samuel Truner, Esq., one of the Directors of the Bank of England. Very handsomely presented a fine Turtle for the occasion, which was the first imported in the season, and arrived in time to be served .. ”

Turtle, particularly in the form of soup, became an indispensible and inevitable part of every important dinner - public or private or state - by the nineteenth century. So unthinkable was it to have a dinner without it, that it was preferrable (and quite proper) to have Mock Turtle Soup rather than No Turtle Soup. As turtle became more scarce, the substitute became more common, accumulating status in its own right until it became the norm.

Before their inevitable near-extinction by eating, how did one prepare a turtle for ones Royal Guests? This is how:

The following receipt for dressing a Turtle, having been much enquired after, was received from a cook in the Indies, where they are dressed in the utmost perfection.
Cut off the head first, and hang the turtle by one of the hindmost fins, that the blood may run from it to make the fish white. This done, cut off the fins & wash them clean; then cut off the belly shell well with meat, take out the guts and wash them very clean, and observe you turn them the right way or you will meet with a great deal of trouble. Stew the guts with a quart or three pints of the best Madeira wine, infuse half a dram of coyn* butter. Then having boiled the four fins, & taken the scales off, stew them with the guts on the belly part, which is called the collop. Take all sorts of the best sweet herbs, cut and shred them very small, and strew them over the collop. Put pieces of the best best butter, one bottle of the best Madeira wine, and a dram and a half of pepper, or coyn butter over it. Take great care it is not over baked. You may cut off collops and dress them as veal cutlets. Send your guts up in the top shell, and set it at the upper end of the table, the collops in the middle, and at the lower end, which garnish with the four fins.
This is the most proper way of dressing this fish, in any part of the Indies, or in England, approved by the best and most experienced cooks who undertake to dress them.
[From: The British Jewel, or complete housewife’s best companion … (1776)]

*coyn: an obsolete word for quince.

[Be patient – there will be more on Mock Turtle Soup on Friday.]

Tomorrow’s Story …

To Feed a Butt of Beer.

Quotation for the Day …

I have always been punctual at the hour of dinner, for I know that all those whom I kept waiting at that provoking interval would employ those unpleasant moments to sum up my faults. Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711)

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