Published on February 7, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour


Ox tale brought up to date

A 19th Century recipe devised to feed Newcastle’s poor has been recreated to gauge its nutritional value. Alastair Gilmour took it to a pub chef to capitalise on his expertise

Buried deep in the Cheers file marked “come in handy one day” is a recipe for soup, dated 1866 and created by the governor of Newcastle Gaol. With the quantity of ingredients enough to produce 100 gallons (455 litres), it didn’t exactly jump out as a quick weekday meal, but it was always at the back of our minds to recreate it at some time.

The recipe came from the Soup Kitchen at the 17th Century Holy Jesus Hospital in Newcastle and commemorated “the gift of an ox and vegetables” on Tuesday February 15 1881 to the hospital committee by one Mr D Marks. (Holy Jesus is now Grade II-listed building currently in the care of the National Trust and sits cheek-by-jowl by the Swan House roundabout.) The animal had been purchased that morning at Newcastle Cattle Market “and driven thence to the Soup Kitchen” before taken to a local slaughterhouse.

The resultant 100 gallons of beef and vegetable soup was intended to “alleviate the privations of the helpless poor of the town at the present inclement season of the year”. The deserving poor in Victorian times were those unable to work during the winter months. Individuals classed as undeserving were those whose poverty was deemed to be caused by indolence and alcoholism.

The recipe for the soup reads: 112 pounds of beef and bones, 28 pounds barley, 56 pounds peas, 7 pounds flour, 14 pounds rice, 14 pounds onions, 10 pounds salt, ¾ pound pepper, 14 pounds carrots, 7 pounds turnip, 4 pounds celery.

So, we celebrate the 137th anniversary of the occasion by inviting Wylam Brewery Tap & Kitchen to scale down the quantities and produce the soup to see how the recipe would compare with the tastes of today and also how nutritious it would be in “alleviating the privations”. Chef Tony Renwick readily took up the challenge and even surprised himself by the resulting gallon pot of meat and veg. It looked overwhelmingly appetising and smelt glorious – but what of the flavour?

“It’s definitely filling with the rice, dried peas and barley being cooked for hours,” says Tony. “It’s actually very nutritious and with the added flour, it was definitely made to feed the poor and the homeless.

“The beef gives protein and the vegetables – carrot, onion, celery and swede – are four of your five a day, plus there are carbohydrates from the pulses, then there’s fibre and vitamins from the barley and starch from the rice and flour. Thinking about it, if there was less salt, these ingredients are right on trend for a well-balanced soup.”

These days, our top-end butchers hang beef for around 28 days to mature and improve, but if the ox had been slaughtered and cooked on the same day, would that make a difference?

Tony says: “The meat would have been very fresh, very wet, and they would possibly have used that amount of salt to draw out the moisture. If the meat wasn’t of great quality – which it probably wasn’t – it would have been boiled in salt to cleanse it then cut up to start afresh for the soup.

“The beef and vegetables would have been boiled for around four hours solid, but I’ve cooked it all slowly and gently, getting all the flavours out.”

And what a job he did of such humble ingredients. Sitting before us was a gallon of magnificence and rarely have we been presented with such a flavourful combination, set off against a backdrop of pepper-laced rice and barley. It was definitely a meal in itself – and who knew jail food could taste so good?

Tony Renwick hadn’t been too concerned about the amount of salt used, although he admits it would be frowned on by modern palates. The soup hadn’t felt as over-salted as feared but it was around an hour later that it began its thirsty work. In that scenario there’s only one conclusion – a pint of Wylam Hickey The Rake Limonata Pale (4.3% abv) with its citrus zing of lemon and lime and dash of pineapple to slake the driest of thirsts.

The prison governor’s soup recipe was devised some three decades after Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. But that character’s famous words immediately sprung to mind: “Please sir, I want some more.”

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Alastair Gilmour

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