In the Kitchen with Francatelli, Part One
I was into Charles Elmé Francatelli before it was cool.
Since I first learned of him in my twenties, he has dwelt at the sweet spot in my heart where deepest desires meet. He was a good cook. He was a best-selling author. He had abundant facial hair. He was a Victorian. Indeed he was not only a Victorian, but a Victorian with a close connection to Queen Victoria herself.
From 1840 to 1842, he was the queen’s maitre d’hôtel and chief cook. Just two years, but enough to capitalize on when, in 1868, he published The Cook’s Guide and Butler’s Assistant: A Practical Treatise on English and Foreign Cookery in All Its Branches.
My copy, complete with the sticker from the original bookseller, is one of my prized possessions.
Francatelli was an Englishman, educated in France, who spent much of his life catering to the tastes of the high and mighty in London clubs–the St James and the Reform–and royal houses. Long after his gig at Buckingham Palace, he was hired as chef de cuisine by the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) at Marlborough House.
I used to be able to shout his name from my window without a soul knowing who the hell he was, but then along came Victoria, and he turned into an international sex symbol.
If you have not seen it, Victoria is a British ITV/Masterpiece Theatre television series in which, through the magic of fair-to-middling green screen technology and a decent costume budget, we are transported to the mid-19th century for a peek at the private lives of the royal family, their circle, and also the folks downstairs who keep the palace running.
Including Mr. Francatelli.
Victoria is less a work of history than what you might call a historical fantasia. Real people appear. Real events are referenced or depicted. But in the interest of making the ride a smidge more fun, liberties are taken. The queen, as portrayed by Jenna Coleman and her determined chin, has been tweaked to make her more sympathetic to modern viewers. She chitchats agreeably with minor servants who drop by her boudoir to talk over their problems. She is personally concerned with the plight of the working poor. She suspects that brainbox computer programmer Lady Ada Lovelace may be fooling around with Prince Albert; but softens when she learns that Lady Ada is not a temptress, but a single working mum with kids to raise. Because in Victoria, Victoria is just a working mum, too.
Please don’t think this keeps me from watching the show and enjoying it. It does not. However, it does lead to amusing exchanges like this one, as an early episode unfurled in my living room.
Him: Was the real Lord Melbourne as good-looking as the one in the series?
Me: Honey, none of them were as good-looking as they are in the series.
Including Mr. Francatelli.
Here, side by side, I offer the original (from the frontispiece of The Cook’s Guide) and the reboot as portrayed by Ferdinand “You Can Whip My Cream Any Time” Kingsley.
So far as we have facts to go by, Mr. Francatelli’s life at the palace was not a period romance novel (My Biscuits Burn For You) punctuated by flashes of culinary innovation, as portrayed in the show. More on that in a later installment.
Yet this is no way diminishes my love for the first Mr. Francatelli. I would happily tickle him under his beard, and even more happily sit down and let him feed me.
In this and two subsequent articles, I’m going to share with you four recipes from The Cook’s Guide and Butler’s Assistant, tested and rewritten for the home kitchen. And each time, we’ll take a look at what the recipe says about food from the era and the people who cooked and ate it.
Including Mr. Francatelli.
Let’s begin with something warm and comforting for fall and winter weather.
In the MDK Shop
Victoria Soup: The Recipe
Francatelli’s book includes almost sixty different soups, but this one is noted arrestingly as, “the only soup … eaten by the Queen when I had the honour of waiting upon Her Majesty.”
Well, okay then. Let’s try it.
This is given as a very simple barley soup (though it can, says Mr. F, also be made with rice).
8 oz pearl barley
3 pints veal or chicken stock*
*If you have not a kitchen maid to boil the week’s bones and scraps into stock each Monday morning after she lights the fire in the range, store-bought is fine.
16 oz light cream
Rinse the barley in cool water. Place in a saucepan with enough water to clear the barley by about two inches. Bring to a boil, and allow to boil for two minutes. Remove from heat, cover the saucepan, and allow the barley to soak in the hot water for an hour.
Drain the barley and return it to the saucepan. Add the stock. Francatelli calls for veal stock. I substituted chicken stock, as it was easiest to obtain and most to my taste. You might also use beef.
Simmer gently for about an hour and a half, with the pan partly covered to prevent too much evaporation. There will still be a great deal of evaporation, mind you. The barley will become very, very soft. Remove from heat.
Transfer one third of the soup to a pan of the same or a slightly larger size. Cover to keep warm.
Push the remaining soup through a sieve into a bowl, or run it through a food millequipped with the medium disc. You can puree the soup with a food processor, if you like, but if you do so, afterwards strain the soup through a fine sieve.
My beloved, battered food mill. Such a boon that after I acquired it I was able to let one of the kitchen maids go.
Combine the puree with the whole barley in the saucepan, and add the cream. Throw in a generous pinch of salt. Heat over a moderate flame, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, for five minutes. Serve hot.
Victoria Soup: The Result
This stuff is thick. And white.
I served it to the nice family that lives upstairs from me–mom, dad, and their kindergartner. The portions were small–about a cup each. That was plenty.
The richness was the biggest shock. This soup has a consistency akin to oatmeal, but more voluptuous; our kindergartner compared it to macaroni and cheese. She did not care for it after a spoonful, but her parents and I did–though we agreed we might make it just a bit more liquid with additional stock.
It’s surprisingly flavorful for a dish with so few ingredients, and no seasoning but a pinch of salt and the small amount of sodium in my store-bought chicken broth.
The purée/sieve/strain step is a signature of Victorian soups aimed at the middle classes and higher. A perfectly velvety texture without distracting flecks of herb, spice, or vegetable was the ideal, and the onerous task of shoving the stuff through wire mesh or (even worse) a tammy cloth usually fell to a servant low in the kitchen hierarchy. You need strong arms, tough hands, and patience.
Ironically, the result was often a soup that, as one retired cook in Jennifer Davies’s The Victorian Kitchen noted, left everything that was nutritious behind in the sieve.
We’ll encounter the sieve again in our next dish. For now, Mr. Francatelli and I bid you bon appétit.