So this is a leek soup, right? A vegetable soup, made from the “badge of the Welsh,” Mrs Beeton called it back in 1861. So why is the first ingredient a sheep’s head?
- a sheep’s head
- 3 quarts of water (well, you’re going to need that much if you’re looking to boil a sheep’s head – and a very large pot!)
- 12 leeks cut small
- Pepper and salt to taste
- Oatmeal to thicken
“Prepare the head, either by skinning or cleaning the skin very nicely [I assume that means shave off all the woolly bits]; split it in two; take out the brains, and put it into boiling water; add the leeks and seasoning, and simmer very gently for 4 hours. Mix smoothly, with cold water, as much oatmeal as will make the soup tolerably thick; pour it into the soup; continue stirring until the whole is blended and well done, and serve”
Plainly, Mrs Beeton never cooked a leek in her life! Four hours’ simmering time? I was amazed there was anything left of the leeks at all! “To prevent tainting the breath, [leeks] should be well boiled,” Mrs Beeton assures us. I don’t doubt it’s effective advice. After four hours, I can’t imagine why anybody would actually want to eat it at all, so it’s certainly not going to “taint the breath”!
First of all, I wasn’t going to mess around with sheep’s heads. I thought a bouillon cube would do. And that meant I could make only a small quantity, using two leeks and a pint of water (450 ml). I suppose the quantity of oatmeal needed would depend on the size of the leeks used. Mine were quite large, so it had the consistency of a pottage from the start, and only required a small handful to thicken it.
Mrs Beeton noted that this would suffice for ten persons. Suitable for a hundred more like, because, frankly, it’s awful! I’m quite fond of leeks, properly prepared, but boiled to buggery like this, it became clear early on in the process that this was not going to be a great meal when the simmering liquid began giving off rather a foul smell. Clearly, the body of the leeks was breaking down with over-cooking, and not in a good way. After the prescribed four hours, the leeks were a slimy, soft blob that tasted of nothing, but salt – that would be the bouillon. An hour later, a slightly metallic aftertaste hung around in my mouth, and I was conscious of this queasy clump in my stomach.
So who actually ate leek soup? Clearly not Mrs Beeton. But she does note that the cost would be about four pence per quart, so very cheap, and therefore presumably eaten by the Welsh lower class in the nineteenth century. As they climbed out of their coal mines and sauntered home from the blast furnaces, that smell is what may well have hit them as they entered their door, and that slimy, tasteless morass was what they slithered down their throats.