Imagine you lived in the 18th century and were invited to a fancy dinner party, and the foods that they would serve you during these banquets were, to say the least, very exotic. One of the items that was a must-have was turtle soup and other delicacies made from green sea turtles. However, these magnificent animals are not indigenous to the European continent, so how did this unusual food arrive at European dinner tables?
The turtles’ journey towards the European continent
The extraordinary tender meat of the green sea turtle (or soup turtle), with its superior flavour and texture, was the most expensive high-end food of the 18th century, especially popular in England and the United States. As a result of colonial exploration in the 17th century, seafarers were the first Europeans to get in contact with these magnificent animals, mainly using them to provide food for the long sea journeys back from the West-Indies. Turtles made ideal supplies, since they could easily be kept alive on the ships and thus provide regular fresh food to the sailors. At this point the animals were considered a necessity, far removed from the haute cuisine they would become in the 18th century. The turtle meat could also be preserved by salting it and was used in a variety of dishes ranging from soups to stews.
The journeys from and to the colonies were often recorded. Richard Walter’s hugely popular Anson’s Voyage Round The world, first published in 1740 in London and reprinted many times well into the 19th century, records, perhaps somewhat idealistically, his four-year long journey with the English Baron George Anson (1697-1762), to the West-Indies. Anson participated in the British attack on Spanish possessions during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, to improve British trading opportunities with the Caribbean. Walter was Anson’s official chaplain (1717-1785) and describes the green sea turtles as a delicacy and a nutritional miracle, as they nourished the crew back to health after suffering from scurvies; ‘…But the green turtle is generally esteemed by the greatest part of those who are acquainted with its taste, to be the most delicious of all eatables; and that it is a most wholesome food…”
The book gave Anson celebrity status and when he donated a few green sea turtles, one allegedly at least three hundred pounds, to honour an exclusive gentlemen’s gambling club, as well as the Royal Society’s dining club in London, he introduced turtle as a must-have part for the sumptuous banquets of the upper classes. From this moment on a high demand for turtle meat arose and the English aristocrats established a private sea turtle trade between London and the West-Indies. The ships from the West-Indies were equipped with wooden tanks in which up to 15.000 living turtles were transported annually to satisfy their gluttony ridiculed in many satirical print from the late 18th century.
Preparation and use of the green sea turtle
Once the turtles arrived in Europe they were served to the upper classes during fancy dinners and banquets. 18th century cooking books would often include a recipe for making turtle soup. The first, and most used one was “To dress a Turtle the West Indian Way” by Hannah Glasse from 1747. It was published in the fourth edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. The making of a turtle soup was not a piece of cake, the preparation of the meat took quite some time. First of all the turtle, that could weigh up to a 100 pounds, was killed by cutting off the head. Then it was hung by its backfins to drain all the blood from its body, all the fins were removed and the flesh was separated from the upper and lower shell. The organs were removed and the turtle flesh was cut away with great care because the “green fat” had to be preserved since this was the most important part of the turtle; it gave the dish its taste, texture, and colour.
“Take the fins, and put them in a stew-pan, cover them with veal broth, season with an onion chopped fine, all sorts of sweet herbs chopped very fine, half an ounce of cloves and mace, half a nutmeg beat very fine, stew it very gently till tender; then take the fins out, and put in a pint of Madeira wine, and stew it for fifteen minutes, beat up the whites of six eggs with the juice of two lemons; put the liquor in and boil it up, run it through a flannel bag.”
The famous turtle soup was offered as an appetizer in decorative bowls or even in its own shell. It also describes how every part of the turtle could be used, to provide A Course of Turtle, as part of a menu, and comprising ‘the lights, heart and liver, soup, the fins, and the callepy and callepash.’ It also presents many recipes for mock turtle, using calf’s meat presented in a turtle shell: the ultimate deception! Could it be that the shield with the portrait of Frederick Henry was once a soup bowl?
The consumption of green sea turtles was believed to prevent one from getting full, making it possible to enjoy all the other foods during the dinner. However, a peculiar ritual needed to be followed. After finishing the soup, it was required to open one’s mouth to cool down the throat and wash it with a nice glass of Madeira or port.
Despite its presence in cooking books, the dish was still mainly reserved for the wealthy. This changed however, in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century, when recipes for mock turtle soup appeared making the dish affordable to the middle classes. This popularity of mock turtle soup is succinctly described in The Cook’s Oracle, a recipe book from 1823: “Mock turtle, is the ‘Bonne Bouche’ [the treat] which the ‘officers of the mouth’ of Old England prepare, when they choose to rival ‘Les Grands Cuisiniers de France’ in a ‘Ragout sans Pareil’.” However, the same author mock’s these imitations of the real thing: “Without its paraphernalia of subtle double relishes, a ‘starved turtle’ has not more intrinsic sapidity than a ‘fatted calf’.”
It took more than a century after the introduction of the mock turtle soup before it became available to the working class. Big companies like Campbells and Heinz started to make canned versions, replacing the turtle meat with veal. This choice seems unexpected, because you would assume the dish to have a fishy flavour. Noting from people’s experience however, it tastes like veal, beef or chicken depending on what part of the turtle the meat is coming from.
The introduction of the mock turtle soup in the 19th century did not only inspire the big soup companies, but also the writer Lewis Caroll. One of his characters in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland is named “Mock Turtle” and has the head of a veal and the body of a turtle in an upright position. For the films that were produced of Alice in Wonderland, even a song was composed for the mock turtle to sing: Beautiful Soup.
Alice meeting the Mock Turtle in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carol, 1869. Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, “Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?” “No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.” “It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from”, said the Queen.
— Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, chapter 9, illustration by John Tiennil
During the 20th century the green sea turtle became almost extinct and is now an endangered species. As we know from a previous blog, there were already warnings in the 17th century against over fishing turtles. Therefore the dish gradually left the dining tables, making its way for oysters and caviar. However, the dish never fully disappeared since other turtle species are still used, such as the alligator snap turtle and diamond terrapin. For example, in the United States, turtle soup is still a favoured dish in states such as Louisiana as some Chefs attest, who describe the taste of the dish:
“Turtle has the advantage of having an incredible meaty, beefy flavor with an extremely unique texture… think alligator or squid.” – Cody Carroll, chef at Sac-A-Lait, New Orleans.
“The soup is most similar to frog, mildly gamey, but very nice. It has a mild sweetness and is very savory. The taste and structure is also very similar to alligator, almost like a marriage of pork and chicken.” – Aaron Whittle, chef at Eleven Madison Park, New York.
Because of the current corona situation it is not possible to hop on a plane and try this soup yourself. However, what you can do is browse the internet, find a nice mock turtle soup recipe, get a calf’s head and spices, and of course some madeira or sherry, and start cooking. Bon Appetit!
The Turtle Team
Do check in and don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @theturtletale for more updates about the project.
- Anonymous. The Cook’s Oracle. London: James Moyes, 1823.
- Ching, May Bo. “The Flow of Turtle Soup from the Carribean via Europe, and its Modern American Fate.” Gastronomica 16 (2015): 79-89.
- Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. London, 1747.
- Mandelkern, India. “The Politics of the Turtle Feast in 18th-century England”. Blog: https://brewminate.com/the-politics-of-the-turtle-feast-in-18th-century-england/.
- Parsons, James. “Sea turtles and their eggs,” in The Cambridge World History of Food, volume 1, ed. Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, 567-573. Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid and Cape Town: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Trubek, J. Amy. “Turtle Soup.” Gastronomica 1 (2001): 10-13.
- Walter, Richard. Ansons Voyage Round The world. London: Blackie and Son, 1740.