Source: A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes by Charles Elme Francatelli (first published 1852)
A reprint of this book was another Christmas present and in all honesty it is full of recipes which sound revolting to the modern palate. Fortune favours the brave, however, and this particular recipe appeared to be a Victorian mash-up of the traditional French fish stew – how wrong could that go?
Put the following ingredients into a saucepan to boil on the fire – four onions and six tomatoes, or red love-apples, cut in thin slices, some thyme and winter savoury, a little salad oil, a wine-glassful of vinegar, pepper and salt, and a pint of water to each person. When the soup has boiled fifteen minutes, throw in your fish, cut in pieces or slices, and, as soon as the fish is done, eat the soup with some crusts of bread or toast in it. All kinds of fish suit this purpose.
This raised a number of questions which needed resolving before I started with the actual business of cooking
What are love-apples?
I was concerned about Googling this, but turns out it is just an archaic name for a tomato, so that phrase actually reads ‘six tomatoes or red tomatoes’ Next.
What is winter savoury?
A herb native to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, which tastes a bit like a cross between mint and thyme. Apparently (which I find surprising considering it needs six hours of sunshine a day) it can be grown in the UK and, indeed, was in many Victorian kitchen gardens. I used mint instead.
What sort of fish were the Victorian working classes likely to be using?
For this I found a fascinating paper which includes a review of what Mid-Victorians were eating, you can read it here – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672390/ and this is what it says:
The herring was one of the most important fish in the Victorian urban diet; fresh in the autumn, winter and spring; dried and salted (red herring) or pickled/soused all year round. Red herrings were a staple of the working class diet throughout the year because they were easily cooked… Other favourites were cheap and easily obtainable varieties with better keeping qualities than the more vulnerable white fish, including sprats, eels, and shellfish (oysters, mussels, cockles, whelks).
Consequently I turned to the herring family for authenticity and used sardines in my stew
Once these questions had been settled the recipe itself was fairly simple. Unfortunately I don’t have a fire in my flat, so the hob had to suffice, I also halved the quantities and used olive oil as salad oil. The meaning of a wine-glassful of vinegar was a little problematic, but I used malt vinegar and a small wine glass, I then added two pints of water.
The result was certainly better than I expected, although the whole flat did smell strongly of sardines for at least twenty four hours after my experiments. The vinegar gave the stew a slightly unpleasant tartness which I combated by adding a tablespoon of honey, but otherwise this made a very edible and pretty healthy lunch (sans the suggested bread) for a couple of days.
Suggested alterations: Less vinegar, more tomatoes
Final verdict: I mean, it’s alright, but I feel like the Good Food bouillabaisse recipe might be a better bet.