Vintage Recipes – Brown Windsor Soup
Brown Windsor Soup – surely the stuff that the British Empire was built on? I know of it through Tony Hancock ordering it in an unappetising 1950s canteen, the Carry On team being served it for dinner it like unadventurous Brits in Carry on Abroad, and, well, in numerous other comedy settings from the 50s to the 70s. It’s famously the dull embodiment of dreary British cuisine and looks a bit like sludge. Although I can’t remember the ingredients ever being specified, I imagined it as a kind of thin, liquidised beef stew.
So it rather blew my mind to learn on Wikipedia that, in all likelihood, Brown Windsor Soup never actually existed as an actual, real thing from Victorian or Edwardian times. It was first included on the odd menu in the 1920s and 30s and thereafter apparently mainly used as a jokey kind of reference to terrible, dull British food.
Michael Quinion has investigated, and makes the claim that Brown Windsor Soup is first mentioned in print as late as 1943 – in the book The Fancy by Monica “great-granddaughter of Charles” Dickens. He has a few theories as to where the name came from. Firstly, there was White Windsor Soup, an undeniably real Victorian dish. Secondly, Brown Windsor Soap was also a definite, very famous, type of soap. And so there might have been some kind of confusion between these two items, or possibly a deliberate mashup of them both, for satirical purposes or otherwise.
I decided I wasn’t going to take Wikipedia’s word for this. I was going to uncover some true Brown Windsor Soup, as enjoyed by Queen Victoria. Wading through The British Newspaper Archive, the extensive search results that immediately popped up looked promising. However, on closer investigation, it was a quirk of the reading software of the Archive, which isn’t always entirely accurate on account of the age of the papers scanned, and the tiny typefaces that can be used. Every result referred to Brown Windsor Soap, not soup.
However. There is another type of Victorian soup that may have been the Brown Windsor in all but specific name – the vague-sounding “Brown Soup”.
In basic form, this could be “Beef Tea” – either in invalid cookery form or as a kind of Bovril drink, like this one, “Bouillon Fleet” from 1889:
Or here on this restaurant menu in 1890, which was probably a more substantial version:
And it was served as a starter at the New Year’s Dinner at a “Home for Old Men and Women” in Glasgow, 1895. This stereotypical Victorian menu consisted of brown soup, beef-steak pie and plum pudding.
Talking of pudding – look! A recipe for “Brown Windsor pudding” in 1897. It’s a spiced fruit steamed pudding which sounds gorgeous. I’m guessing that this was a reference to the aforementioned soap, which was also advertised as containing spices such as cinnamon. If there was spiced food based on the soap, then maybe “Brown Windsor Soup” should properly also be cinnamonned, gingered and cloved, a bit like Mulligatawny soup?
Here’s a 1913 recipe for brown soup. It’s made of beef and vegetables, but made extra brown with the addition of Bovril and browning. None more brown.
And one from 1916, with instructions on how to make the soup extra brown, by browning the flour in front of the fire.
And another one. It all sounds quite nice to me.
The first actual mention of “Brown Windsor soup” I found, on a Hartlepool menu from 1928. It was from Binns’ Restaurant – perhaps they invented it?
A 1928 recipe for Brown Soup here, using vermicelli to thicken, if wished.
Brown Windsor still being served at Binns’ in Hartlepool in 1931:
A prize-winning brown soup recipe from 1931. I suspect that the winner, Mrs G. Walker, had seen the “Everything That Is Good” recipe above, in 1928. Veeerry similar.
Windsor soup was finally commercially available in the 1940s. Batchelor’s version is here, although it wasn’t called “Brown”. Tinned foods were handy in wartime, it’s “A meal in itself” and could be heated “at the minimum of fuel cost”. Although “quantities are rather limited and a little patience may be needed,” in order to obtain some. Emphasizing its potential scarcity makes it sound more desirable, of course.
Finally, the last reference I found. Because The British Newspaper Archive only goes up to the mid-1950s, so far. I love the Britishness of the “If you must eat out…”
I wonder when the very last bowl of Brown Windsor soup was eaten? Maybe there are people still making it out there, although what their recipe is, who knows? I couldn’t find anything specifying what makes “Brown Soup” different from “Brown Windsor”, if there even is a difference. And so, now I feel the need to invent my own version – a very gently spiced, very brown, beefy, vegetabley kind of concoction. Watch this space.
Update – thanks to Steve in the comments below, who let me know that there was now a date of 1926 as the first reference on Wikipedia. This is it:
And after some more research I’ve found a 1926 reference to Brown Windsor in Binns’, earlier than the 1928 version above. Still a few months later than the one in the Portsmouth Evening News though.