There is no introduction to this recipe by Grigson in English Food. I am never sure whether Jane did this because she didn’t want to, or whether she thought she didn’t need to. It turns out the recipe goes back quite a bit with a huge amount of similar recipes cropping up during the nineteenth century, including examples from stalwarts such as Eliza Acton (1845), Alexis Soyer (1850) and Elizabeth Raffald (1769). Recipes also crop up in their droves in American cook books of the nineteenth century.
Oysters were hugely popular in British cuisine up until the early nineteenth century, and were at one point considered poor-man’s food, until the seas of Britain became polluted from the Industrial Revolution. These days, they are rather more expensive, though dropping in price now that our seas are much cleaner than they used to be. Farming helps keep the price of the oyster down and there are several successful farms around the UK now. The oyster farm is by no means a recent invention – the Gauls in the 7th century BC farmed them and sold them as far afield as Rome. It went a bit tits-up however when they were completely trounced by the Barbarians.
I chose to use oysters here, but you can use mussels for this recipe instead. There are several pluses to using them: if you are on a budget, they are good and cheap; and also it is easy to get the meat from them. If I were in England, I would probably go for mussels simply for the reason that shucking oysters is one major pain in the arse. However, here in America where seafood is very popular and you can walk into your local supermarket and buy pre-shucked fresh oysters in their own liquor from the fish section. Now that I know this, expect to see a lot more recipes that use oysters in the blog. Mussel farming, like oyster farming, is a main contributor to the reason they are cheap; they can be grown quickly and in great numbers on ‘parks’ made by hanging ropes down into the sea.
Eating seafood such as like oysters and mussels before starting this project would have filled me with dread – our family never ate things like this – but now they fill me with joy. I just love the little beasties.
This recipe is for 6 people (or 4 greedy ones).
Start off with your appropriate seafood: according to the book you’ll need either 2 dozen oysters or 2 pounds of mussels. The number of oysters you need will actually depend on the species of oyster available – 2 dozen if native oysters, or one dozen if the large Pacific or Atlantic species. Shuck the oysters, or alternatively leave them flat-side up in the freezer for a while until they open up for you. Either way, make sure you keep any oyster liquor. If you are using one of the large species, cut each one into two or three pieces.
If the mussel is your bivalve of choice, then give them a good scrub and pull out their beards should they have any. Tap each one: if the shells close, your mussel be alive and well, if it remains open, your mussel be dead, so discard it. Chuck them in a large pan, cover, and place over a high heat. After a few minutes, give them a shake and see if the mussels have opened. If they have they are cooked. Remove the meat from them and place them in sieve over a bowl to collect the juices. Don’t forget to keep any juices from the bottom of the cooking pan too.
Now the shellfish is prepared, you can get on with making the soup. Finely chop 4 shallots and soften them in 2 ounces of butter. Once golden, stir in two tablespoons of flour and let it cook for a minute or two. Find yourself a whisk and mix in the reserved juices and then 1 ¼ pints of light beef stock or veal stock. Season with sea salt, black pepper, Cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Cover, and simmer for 20 minutes or so. When you are ready to serve, add the oysters or mussels plus ¼ pint of double cream and some chopped parsley. Bring it up to a boil, turn off the heat and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve immediately.
#316 Oyster or Mussel Soup. This was a fantastic soup! The combination of rich creamy stock and fresh iodine-scented oysters was magic. One of the best soups I’ve done – and really easy too. If you’re doing a dinner party and you want to impress without breaking your back, I would definitely have a go at this. I shall try it again soon but with mussels and see if they are as good as the oysters. 9/10.