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Portable Soup

'Oh,' she said, and absently she took three spoonfuls of the soup. 'Lord above,' she said, 'what is this?'

'Soup. Portable soup. Pray take a little more, it will rectify the humours.'

'I thought it was luke-warm glue. But it goes down quite well, if you don't breathe.' —The Fortune of War, p. 318 Other Patrick O'Brian Quotes on Portable Soup

(Click on any image for an expanded JPEG image. Warning: large file sizes!)

Portable Soup (also known as Pocket Soop or Veal Glew) is the ancestor of the modern bouillon cube—hence its frequent use in the sickroom—and a close cousin of the Glace de Viande used in French cooking: a stock based on meat bones with a few vegetables and herbs, first browned, then simmered a long time, then strained, skimmed, and cooked again for a long time, until it reaches a very high degree of concentration and a correspondingly low volume.

Once it cools and congeals, the final product of 10 gallons of stock is a small brown rubbery slab about 6 by 12 by 1 inches, with an intense meaty taste.

(It is a wonderful flavoring agent for sauces and gravies, but it is not particularly good on its own—and must have been considerably worse 200 years ago, after many months or even years of imperfect preservation.)

How long is a long time? William Gelleroy (1762), says to boil the soup until "the meat has lost its virtue;" Hannah Glasse (1747), from whom he copied his recipe, says until "the Meat is good for nothing." (Of course, the loss of virtue in a piece of meat is a highly subjective matter; we ourselves have never yet succeeded in boiling all the virtue out of any meat.) Mrs. Beeton (1861) says the first boiling should be "12 hours, or more, if the meat be not done to rags," and suggests 8 hours, stirring all the while, for the second.

Most 18th-century cooks included a further cooking stage, in which the soup was placed in a bain-marie arrangement until it was "thick and ropy." We have eliminated this step because we found that our soup became quite ropy enough without it.

  • 30 pounds very meaty bones (any combination of beef, pork, and veal—shin, neck, etc.)
  • 2 pigs' feet or 1 pound ham (optional)
  • 6 large onions, peeled and cut in half
  • 6 large carrots, peeled and cut in half
  • 6 ribs celery with leaves, cut in pieces
  • large handful of parsley
  • large handful of thyme
  • large handful of hyssop
  • large handful of marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon mace
  • 12 cloves
  • 3 tablespoons peppercorns
  • salt
  • water
[N.B. Quantities given are for fresh-picked herbs—for dried herbs, substitute a smaller amount. The ratio is normally about 1 to 3.]

 In a large stewpot (several stewpots, actually), brown the bones on all sides, a few at a time, in their own fat.

Return all the bones to the pot, and add the vegetables, herbs, spices, and water to cover.

Bring slowly to a boil, skimming off any scum that forms on the surface.

Cover, but not too tightly — leave a little room for steam to escape.

Reduce heat and simmer at least 6 hours.

Strain and skim the stock, discarding the bones. (At this point you must determine for yourself whether or not the meat still has any virtue... if not, discard it too.)

Put the stock in the widest pot or pan you can find. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat.

Cook, uncovered, skimming occasionally, until the liquid is reduced to about 1/8 its original volume (this will take at least another 6 hours).

 Pour the reduced stock into a shallow pan and refrigerate until firmly set.

Run a knife around the edges and take the soup out of the pan (you will find that you can pick it up as if it were a thick piece of leather).

Cut it into 1-inch cubes and freeze in an airtight container.

Note: To be truly Portable and Authentic, this Soop should be dried rather than frozen; and the cooks of the period spent many days turning slabs of Soop on fresh pieces of flannel "until the Glew be quite Hard."

We have tried this, and can report that it is apparently a seasonal operation; attempting it at the seaside during the height of summer is apt to produce nothing but a mass of furry—and not very portable—lumps.

Copyright © 1996-2003 W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.