Omigod, can you believe it? Time to eat. And I must confess that I actually exceed Carême's instructions here. On July 6, 1829, footmen would have removed sitting soup plates from the guests' settings at 7 pm sharp, replaced them with warmed soup plates, and offered the dinner party of 12 a choice from silver tureens: Le potage a la Condé (a puree of savory partridge and bean soup, served with croutons)...OR the fabulous Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan, dipping out the broth, mushrooms, quenelles, and fish into bowls and offering the additions of oysters, crayfish, and truffles. You know which one I'd recommend.

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The Hardest Soup in the World

(e-SoupSong 49: June 1, 2004)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN FRANCE, a man created a soup so extraordinary that when it was served to a banquet room full of Paris' most sparkling talking heads and effervescent literati, silence fell.

Its name? Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan.
The date and place? 1829, Chateau Rothschild.
The chef? Marie-Antoine Carême.

Imagine an exquisite flat soup plate of the finest china. In its center bottom, delicately fit together sauteed fillets of sole that have been cut into four notched arrowheads so that they form a short squared cross. Into the back notch of each arrowhead, spoon one brilliantly white, perfectly poached, small ovate fish quenelle--in effect creating an arresting heraldic cross across the base of each bowl. Place at the intersection of the crosspieces a small, fluted mushroom that has been poached in consomme and decorated with finely sliced black truffle. Likewise place four identically poached and decorated button mushrooms into the figure, one in each angle of the crosspieces. Does it remind you a little of the English Union Jack? More on that later. Carefully ladle sparkling broth in the bowl--a seasoned and layered broth, in fact, that marries pure veal essence with champagne fish stock. Isn't the hot vapor alone the most heavenly fragrance you've ever taken into your lungs?

Now you have a choice. Your splendidly uniformed footman may carry the bowl to table and offer it with astonishing garnishes to your guest. Or you may follow my suit: Decorate the rim of the soup plate alternately with those fabulous garnishes--small plump poached oysters, shrimp, and slices of black truffle; walk this fabulous creation to the table; sit down, exhausted after five days of serial effort; take a long moment of looking at this creation and breathing it in; then pick up your silver spoon and...and...and taste your way into a reverie of what time, place, and personages could have created such a soup.


Carême was born in a Paris slum 1783ish, the sixteenth of twenty-five children. He was infelicitously named by his parents after Queen Marie Antoinette, who was shortly to lose her head at the hand of M. Guillotine, and he accordingly signed himself Marie-Antonin ever after. When he was nine years old, at the height of Robespierre's Terror, his dad led him to a busy Paris intersection and said, "...Go little one, and perhaps this evening or tomorrow some fine house will open its doors to you...." This account of heartless abandonment from Careme himself.

He got lucky. He was found by a cook who took him in and made him a kitchen boy in a low class dive. Once there, there was no stopping his genius. Five years later he was apprenticed to a pâtissier on rue Vivienne, just around the corner from the Palais Royal--a great theater and "amusement" district at the time. He was quickly noticed by one M. Talleyrand, chameleon noble extraordinaire who practiced decisive statecraft successively under the ancien regime (Louis XVI), the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration (Louis XVIII), and the July Monarchy (Louis Philippe), and who briefly lived in abject exiled poverty in the United States. M. Talleyrand famously conducted his diplomatic campaigns on damask dinnercloths, and Carême was soon a 4-star General Pastry Cook in Talleyrand's early sugared campaigns. When Talleyrand became Napoleon's foreign minister, Carême became Talleyrand's master chef--and they both pulled out all the stops. XYZ Affair. Vol-au-Vents Puits D'Amour. Concordat of 1801. Ravishing Suedois. Peace of Amiens. Souffle aux Fraises.

From Talleyrand it was a series of short steps for Carême to the kitchens of the greatest tables in Europe: Prince Regent of England (later George IV)...Tsar Alexander of Russia (in Paris, at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, and at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg)...British Ambassador Lord Charles Stewart at the Court of Vienna...the scandalous Princess Bagration in Paris...and finally, in 1823 at the age of forty, he joined Baron de Rothschild first at his townhouse on rue Lafitte, then at his chateau in Boulogne.

In 1829, Carême began to sicken. By 1833, not yet fifty, he declined into paralysis and death. His last words? "Tomorrow, bring me some fish," he admonished his sous-chef. "Yesterday the quenelles of sole were very good, but your fish was not right, you hadn't seasoned it well." Prognoses were many; likely he was a victim of his craft--low-level carbon monoxide poisoning from cooking over charcoal in small, underventilated kitchens.

I hope you're as enchanted by Carême as me. He was an extraordinary artist, a passionate man, a perfectionist and intellectual, a drill sergeant of gastronomy. He wrote four major works in an elevated style that set out extraordinary menus and recipes inside historical and physiological perspectives. He has no better epitaph than that handed down by the laconic editors of the classic Larousse Gastronomique: "Carême should be regarded, even today, as the founder of 'la grande cuisine,' classic French cookery. his theoretical work, his practical work as an inventor of sauces, as pastrymaker, designer and author of works devoted to cooking, place him at an immense distance from all those who preceded him in his career--Cuisinier des rois et le Roi des cuisiniers, the Cook of kings and the King of cooks."

And he was adamant about soup.

How adamant? It was his first obsession. He was a young boy when newly created "restaurants" in Paris served only bouillon and potage to restore health and spirits, precisely today's Starbuck's coffee shops. But he soon witnessed these places expand as the chefs of guillotined aristocrats found their way, during the Revolution, onto Parisian streets looking for a new way to make a living. And he learned from those chefs.

Soup: crucial to culinary fashion, to digestion, and to cure illness. Not to mention a symbol of solidarity in revolutionary France, simple and signifying communality. Not to mention the very foundation of classic French cuisine, thanks to M. Carême.

Inspired by the French chef Savart, Carême created hundreds of soup recipes--and none of them simple. To cure a cough: puree of snails, frog thighs, barley, and saffron. To strengthen a convalescent, Eau de Poulet Rafraichissant, chicken tea. Consommés of game and with quenelles or juliennes. Fresh pea soup. Bean soup puree. Russian cabbage and meat soup. Potages of celery, lamb, rice, pigeons, or curried chicken. Turtle soup with madeira. Borshch. A minimum of 2 soup choices, served from tureens, to signal the start of dinner.

Betty de Rothschild instructed her servants to distribute Carême's healthy soups to the poor when it was rumored that the Jewish Rothschilds had invented and were spreading cholera.

On his deathbed, Carême debated with Dr. Roque, his physician, the medicinal properties of mushroom soup.

Soup, soup, always soup. Beyond his sugared Greek Temples and feathery puff pasteries, the relevés, the grosses pièces, entrées, roasts, and entremets, there was always soup. And Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan, created and served in 1829 at Chateau Rothschild, was likely the last soup Carême ever created and cooked for a formal meal.

THE SOUP: Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan

Carême got the word from on high: Lady Morgan was invited to dinner that July 6 of 1829 and needed to be specially honored. Why? Because the Rothschilds knew she wanted an invitation and was prepared to write about the dinner and glorify "the first table in France" at a time when the Rothschilds were courting public opinion.

All in a day's work: Carême created this astonishing soup, drawing on his service to the English Prince Regent and Lord Stewart to work out its iconography--that suggestion of an English flag--and inscribed it with Lady Morgan's name on the menu to set the tone for the entire meal. He also inscribed her name in royal icing on the sugar column of his fabulous Greek centerpiece dessert, La Sultane à la Colonne. He didn't much know or care who she was. But she was certainly impressed.

In fact, romantic that she was--this 4-foot-tall Irish poet, advocate, and beauty--she impulsively requested a meeting that night with this extraordinary and gallant chef.

Poor Carême. He'd put in an awfully long day, starting at 5 am. He'd shopped in Paris. Created and cooked a menu of two soups, two fish courses, two meat courses, four entrées, two roasts, two fruit delicacies, four entremets, an extraordinary spun-sugar dessert, and coffee. And just as he was stepping into his carriage, he received word that "Milady" would like to meet him.

She didn't show up for another hour. And when she did, she only expressed her appreciation in the most prosaic terms. After eighteen hours of backbreaking kitchenwork, Carême smiled and returned the compliment. "He was a well-bred gentleman," she said. 'And when we had mutually congratulated each other on our respective works, he bowed himself out, got into his carriage, and returned to Paris."


May I recommend starting the recipe at least two days before you plan to serve it--and buying the ingredients fresh each day? (Yes, it took me five days, what can I say?) There are no short cuts--and you must use things made early for later steps. Please note: I have adapted some ingredients and techniques to ensure success and drama. No good going to all this effort if the quenelles turn out tough and the soup is a jumble. Here's the plan:

Day 1: Make the veal stock.
Day 2: Prepare the quenelles; the champagne-fish stock; and the arrowheads of sole.
Day 3: Prepare the garnishes, clarify the broth, assemble the soup, and serve.


DAY 1, THE VEAL STOCK: 6 cups fond blanc

  • 1 and 1/2 pounds raw veal meat (shank meat is good)
  • 2 pounds cracked or cut raw veal bones
  • water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 carrot, peeled and broken in two
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • 1 celery stalk with leaves, snapped into pieces
  • spice bag of 1/4 teaspoon thyme, 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs parsley, 1 unpeeled garlic clove, and 2 whole cloves.
In a large pot, cover the bones and meat with cold water, bring to a slow boil over medium heat, let simmer for 5 minutes, then strain, discarding the water and scrubbing the bones and meat to remove all the scum that has cooked out. Wash the pot to get rid of the scum too, then return the bones and meat to it, cover again with cold water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the salt, vegetables, and spice bag at this point, partially cover with a lid, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 4-5 hours. Don't bring this to a boil or stir it lest the scum and fat cloud the final broth. Remove from heat, fish out the spice bag, strain the broth through dampened cheesecloth into a bowl, and cool it down quickly. Don't cover it until the stock is cool--again because it will cloud and could sour. It's ideal to put the stock uncovered in the refrigerator and leave overnight. The fat will rise to the surface and harden, making it easy the next day to remove completely. It will be gelatinous and very tasty.



These airy puffs of fish start out as substantial white sea fish meat; they are pounded into a paste, laced with egg white, cognac, seasonings, and cream; they are molded with hot spoons into an ovate shape; and they are poached in veal stock. At that point they have no texture and are so light that you think you should lay paper over them to keep them from floating off like fish bubbles.

  • 1/2 pound boneless piece of whiting (or hake, cod, or other big white sea fish)
  • 1 egg white
  • pinch nutmeg
  • dash of cognac
  • dash of hot pepper sauce
  • salt and white pepper, to taste

  • 2 cups veal stock
  • buttered parchment paper on a baking pan
  • ice in a large bowl

  • 1 cup heavy cream
Partially freeze the fish, then chop it finely with a big knife. Put the chopped fish in a food processor (or blender) and process while slowly pouring in the egg white. When the fish is emulsified into a paste, sprinkle in the nutmeg, cognac, pepper sauce, salt, and pepper, and process again. Scrape the paste into a sealable small plastic bag; seal, pressing out the extra air; and refrigerate or put on ice. Now is a good time to start the Champagne-Fish Stock below, while the paste is icing down.

Bring the veal stock to a minimum simmer--barely barely quivering--in a wide frying pan. Butter parchment paper and station it close to the stove so you can easily transfer the poached quenelles there. Get 2 identical oval spoons (you will be molding the quenelles with them) and put them in a glass of hot water--same principle as hot ice cream scoops, the paste will slide off more easily.

When ready to begin poaching, scrape the fish paste into a bowl and put that bowl inside a larger bowl of ice. With a wooden spoon, beat the heavy cream, little by little, into the fish paste. Now you're ready to go.

In one spoon, dip up a rounded amount of paste; with the other spoon, smooth the top, then invert the first spoon over the broth and use the second spoon to help it gently plop into the simmering broth. Continue until the pan is full, leaving space for the quenelles to expand. After cooking 4-5 minutes, they are cooked on one side and are easy to flip--cook on the other side 4-5 minutes too. Remove with slotted spoons to the buttered parchment paper. Continue until all the paste is used up. To store overnight, melt a little butter and dab them with it before covering with another sheet of parchment paper. Wrap the pan in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Reserve the poaching liquid! It's going to get a LOT more use.


  • 1 sole or flounder, filleted--reserve the fillets for later and use the head, bones, and scraps to make the stock.
  • 2 cups champagne (drink the rest--you're earning it!)
  • 1/2 squeezed lemon (save the juice for something else)
  • 1 onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 stalk celery with leaves, chopped
  • 1 leek, trimmed and chopped
  • spice bag of bay leaf, pinch nutmeg, pinch cayenne, 2 whole cloves, a squeeze of anchovy paste,
  • pinch of salt
  • dash of salt
Chop the leftover fish parts (not the fillets), then put them in a large saucepan and add the champagne and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, partially cover with a lid, and simmer for an hour. Remove from heat, strain through dampened cheesecloth, and cool uncovered in the refrigerator.


  • 4 reserved fillets of sole
  • 3 Tablespoons butter
In a large frying pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the fillets and saute lightly on each side. When just done, remove to a plate. Let cool, then seal in plastic wrap and refrigerate. It is much easier to shape these into notched arrowheads when cold.



  • Reserved poaching liquid from the quenelles
  • 30 small mushrooms, wiped clean and fluted with the point of a paring knife; cut the stems flush with the caps
  • 12 oysters (that's about a pint)
  • 18 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/4-1/2 pound truffles, pared (or canned truffles or truffle peelings), and sliced very thinly into 18 pieces--reserving the rest to decorate the mushrooms
Bring the reserved stock to a simmer in a saucepan. Add some of the reserved veal stock if you think you need more broth to keep the temperature from dropping when you add the garnishes. You will serially poach each of the garnishes and place on separate dishes. First, drop in the fluted mushrooms, cover, and let poach for 5 minutes; strain out with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the oysters, cover, and poach for 2-3 minutes, just letting their edges curl; strain out with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the shrimp, cover, and poach until they turn pink; strain out and reserve. Finally, dip the truffle slices into the simmering liquid and let poach for several minutes; reserve.


At this point you want to gather your wits and your broths: the poaching liquid; the champagne-fish stock; and the remaining veal stock.

First, strain the poaching liquid through several layers of dampened cheesecloth--it will be full of particles by this time. Then mix it with the champagne-fish stock and add enough veal stock to make about 7 cups of broth. You'll need about 6 cups, but you'll lose some broth in the clarifying process.

Put the broth in a large saucepan. It should be completely cool--if it isn't, add ice cubes until it is. Carefully crack two eggs, separating the white into a bowl (and reserving the egg yolk for another use). Whisk the egg whites lightly, then mix in their crumpled shells and scrape into the soup, stirring well. Put the saucepan on low heat and, without ever stirring, very very slowly bring the soup just to a simmer. Don't be impatient. It will take some time and you don't want it ever to boil. A crusty foam will rise--don't skim it! You can push the foam to one side to watch and make sure the soup isn't boiling. Let it simmer for 15 minutes or so, then remove from the heat and let settle for at least 10 minutes.

When ready to decant the broth, now sparklingly clear, take a minute to prepare: put a strainer over a bowl, and line it with dampened cheesecloth. Now, push aside the scum and carefully ladle the broth through the strainer into the bowl. Let it settle a bit, uncovered, then pour back into a clean saucepan. When you begin the assemble the soup in soup plates, bring this broth to a slow boil.


Omigod, can you believe it? Time to eat. And I must confess that I actually exceed Carême's instructions here. On July 6, 1829, footmen would have removed sitting soup plates from the guests' settings at 7 pm sharp, replaced them with warmed soup plates, and offered the dinner party of 12 a choice from silver tureens: Le potage a la Condé (a puree of savory partridge and bean soup, served with croutons)...OR the fabulous Potage anglais de poisson à Lady Morgan, dipping out the broth, mushrooms, quenelles, and fish into bowls and offering the additions of oysters, crayfish, and truffles. You know which one I'd recommend.

Since we likely don't have seventeen other courses to follow, though, why don't we just go ahead and arrange the soup a little more carefully, in the spirit of Carême's culinary vision?

1. Get your six flat soup plates and put them in a 200-degree oven.

2. Heat up your pristine soup broth.

3. Get out your sole fillets, quenelles, and mushrooms. Cut 6 arrowhead scallops out of the four sole fillets and arrange four arrowheads, the points meeting in the center of each of six warmed bowls. Spoon a quenelle into the notched back of each arrowhead to make large cross shapes in each bowl. Decorate each of thirty button mushrooms with truffle scraps, then arrange five of them in each bowl, one in the center and the other four in the angle of each cross piece.

4. Get out the poached oysters, shrimp, and truffle slices (or, alternately, decorate the oysters and shrimp with truffle pieces). Arrange these garnishes either on a separate serving dish or on the rims of each of the 6 bowls.

7. Ladle the hot broth into each of the bowls and serve immediately.

Is this a fabulous soup? You know it is. Would I ever make it again? Probably not. Is it worth the labor? Probably not. But those five days of labor in the fields of Carême--they make me want to fire up the charcoal, sharpen my knives, and pop another bottle of champagne.

Best regards,
Pat Solley

p.s. A translation of Carême's verbatim recipe, from his L'Art de la cuisine francaise (1833), can be found atême.html.

Resources: James Beard's New Fish Cookery; Julia Child, Louisette Berholle, and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Ian Kelly's Cooking for Kings: Antonin Carême, the Life of the First Celebrity Chef, Prosper Montagne's Larousse Gastronomique; Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker's Joy of Cooking; and a host of encyclopedia and web resources.


NEXT MONTH: Aren't you curious, now, to make Carême's recipe for his namesake's deathsoup? Vermicelli soup, the Last Meal of Marie Antoinette before her Execution.