The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

Turtle Soup

About ten servings as a starter.

If the Editor were to cook a turtle then there would be matricide. That is unfortunate, for while none of us should contemplate slaughtering an endangered wild turtle (which, according to the old books, is anyway a daunting task), farmed and dressed turtle meat is available from suppliers in the American south and west. Fortunately, however, beef can provide a satisfying facsimile of the real thing. British cookbooks of the twentieth century and beyond tend to omit turtle soup recipes so our own reasonably evocative version is adapted from American sources.


-1 ½ lb skirt steak (preferred) or other stewing beef

-6 cups beef stock

-2 Tablespoon unsalted butter

-½ cup chopped carrots

-½ cup chopped celery

-1 ½ cups chopped onions

-¼ cup minced shallots

-½ cup flour (Wondra preferred; see the notes)

-generous ½ teaspoon allspice

-3 bay leaves

-¼ teaspoon or more cayenne

-1 heaped teaspoon paprika

-1 teaspoon dried thyme

-1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes if in season; otherwise use canned San Marzanos or tomato sauce

-3 Tablespoons lemon juice

-1 Tablespoon lemon zest

- ¼ cup (or more) Worcestershire

-½ cup medium or medium dry Sherry or Madeira (see the notes)

-¼ cup minced parsley

-4 minced hard boiled eggs

-lemon slices


  1. Bring the beef and stock to a boil, skim any scum from the surface and then simmer the meat until tender, usually about 2 hours. Keep the heat so low that the liquid barely burps from time to time.
  2. Cut the beef into ¼ inch dice.
  3. Strain the stock and keep it warm.
  4. Melt the butter over medium heat in a clean stockpot, add the carrots, celery, onions and shallots and cook them, stirring now and then, until tender. Do not let them brown.
  5. Stir the flour, allspice, bay, cayenne, paprika and thyme into the vegetables until the flour loses its raw color and then add ½ cup of the stock.
  6. Whisk the stock into the soup base until they marry, then add another ½ cup of warm stock until it, too marries with the other ingredients.
  7. Add the tomatoes or tomato sauce, bring everything to a boil, then gradually stir the remaining stock into the pot along with the lemon juice and zest and Worcestershire.
  8. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and cook for 2 more hours.
  9. Strain the soup, puree the solids and return the puree to the stock along with the diced beef.
  10. Check the soup for salt and pepper, then add the Sherry.
  11. Ensure that the soup is hot before adding the egg and parsley.
  12. Serve each portion of soup with a wedge of lemon and pass a cruet of Sherry around for those who like it (we do).

Turtle Soup with Madiera

Notes:

- Despite its length, this is an easy recipe that produces an excellent soup. It requires little skill: All you need is time.

- To ensure that your turtle soup has its traditional mahogany tint, it helps to add a dollop of Kitchen Bouquet with the Worcestershire at Step 7.

- Use common sense. If your soup gets thicker than you like, thin it with some more warm stock if you have it or water if you do not. If it is too thin, make a liaison of 2 Tablespoons of cornstarch with enough cold water to dissolve it and add the paste to the soup after Step 9 and before Step 10.

- A lot of modern recipes specify cream Sherry: We find it too sweet, but follow your inner turtle soup light. Ours leads us to Amontillado.

- Although we have not found the pairing in restaurants, Madeira is as traditional an accompaniment to turtle soup as Sherry. We like to use Verdelho, and even the drier Sercial. Those with a sweeter tooth should plump for Malmsey.

- If you want to plump for authenticity, dressed turtle meat ready to cook is available online from a number of sources, including louisianasbestseafood.com and exoticmeatmarket.com

- According to rumor, a number of reputable restaurants, including Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, make their turtle soup with a combination of beef and turtle. There is nothing wrong with this practice.

- No self-respecting nineteenth century British chef would send a tureen of turtle soup to table without cheese straws. Recipes for them therefore appear in the practical.

- Eliza Acton and Elisabeth Ayrton, writing over a century apart, advise their readers not to attempt the soup at home due to the awkward and rather gruesome difficulty involved in butchering live turtles. Sheila Hutchins, a contemporary of Mrs. Ayrton, was squeamish to the point of phobia about turtle soup. In 1967, she described the process as ‘dreadful,’ ‘gruesome’ and ‘complicated.’ (English Recipes and others, London 1967, 38) During the sixties, bottled and canned turtle soup that required a ‘cook’ to cut the meat into dice apparently was available in Britain. (English Recipes 38)

- Both Dominique’s, the venerable Washington, DC, restaurant, and Bookbinder’s, the even older Philadelphia fixture, sell canned turtle soup. Both brands are available from amazon.com; online reviews are extremely variable.

- Despite all this, home cooks in Britain apparently dared to cook turtle soup, or at least mock turtle, well into the twentieth century. Writing in 1976, Lizzie Boyd reports that “[t]urtle herbs are sold ready mixed and consist of basil, bay, marjoram and thyme.” (British Cookery, London 1976, 137)

- For her part, Hannah Glasse includes positively Baroque and, it must be said, daunting instructions “to dress a turtle a west Indian way.” These involve, among many other things, beheading and bleeding the beastie; slashing the belly before baking; boiling the head and fins together and then saucing them in a sort of fricassee; she tells us that the “lights, heart and liver, may be done in the same way” separately for service in the shell, or ‘callepash.’ Elsewhere in her instructions Mrs. Glasse explains that “[t]he guts (which is reckoned the best part) must be split open, scraped and made clean, and cut in pieces about two inches long” before frying in butter, herbs and spice including cayenne and stewing in Madiera and broth, which you previously have made from the bones. Her recipe, or series of recipes for nose to tail, does not arrive until the fifth edition of the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, in 1755. Its belated appearance is a little curious because during the first half of the nineteenth century, the great Alexis Soyer dated its arrival in England--via the Caribbean--to the outset of the eighteenth century. Citations to the Art of Cookery are from the beautiful Prospect books facsimile of 1995 at 167.

- Turtle soup makes an early appearance in North American printed sources; in fact it appears in the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, published in Hartford during 1797. Her recipe also is elaborate--it is the longest one in the book--but is less jarring to modern readers than the one from Mrs. Glasse and creates a true soup It includes meat but not offal, which however does go into the stockpot with shell and bones, and those familiar English seasonings of cayenne, mace, nutmeg, pepper and “sweet herbs;’ Simmons, “an orphan,” suggests parsley, savory and thyme.

- A number of reproductions, facsimile and otherwise, of American Cookery have appeared throughout the centuries at various price points. A particularly nice boxed edition was printed by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company at ‘Christmas 1963.’ Marketing and public relations strategies have changed since then, not for the better.

- Lizzie Boyd records a recipe for clear mock turtle soup that is unrelated either to any of the rich nineteenth century recipes or to anything that we otherwise have spotted. It makes a soup based on beef that is lovely and bracing, something light and elegant to start an unpretentious ‘formal’ dinner among friends. All you do is combine about a quart of beef stock with 4 egg whites, the juice and rind of a lemon, ½ cup each of chopped carrots, celery and onions, 6 or so whole peppercorns, a bayleaf, ½ teaspoon each of basil, marjoram and thyme, and 2 Tablespoons of arrowroot. “Boil up the mixture two or three times; leave the pan in a warm place for the stock to infuse for at least 15 minutes.” Strain the soup through a fine sieve or some layers of cheesecloth--it should emerge clear--then check for salt before adding about ½ cup Madeira or Sherry. Serve the broth with cheese straws.

- If you lack the time or confidence to try one of our recipes for them, excellent cheese straws are sold by Target under its ‘Archer Farms’ house brand. They are Things We Like.