The Mystery of Brown Windsor Soup
Victorian and Edwardian cooking exploits in England did not outlive the two monarchs for which the eras are named, and for good reasons. Meals were heavily loaded with stodgy ingredients aimed at keeping out the cold more than appealing to the palate. What could more exemplify that culinary tradition than a dish called Brown Windsor Soup? Or does it? And, is it a creation of Victorian kitchens? A mystery lies ahead.
What Is Brown Windsor Soup?
In the public imagination, Brown Windsor Soup (BWS) has become synonymous with all that was horrible about British cooking. It became fodder for many British comedy routines; somehow, simply mentioning the concoction was deemed to be funny.
However, an unidentified writer in The Independent defended the dodgy reputation in 2004 by writing “It’s a nourishing, thick and beefy affair boosted with a drop of sherry.”
Sam Nutt of the BBC was less enthusiastic after making a batch: “… it seemed like a lot of effort for something that tasted rather plain and a bit fatty – and that looked very brown!”
There are many variations masquerading as Brown Windsor Soup but they all amount to the same thing; a combination of red meats and vegetables. Dare one simply call it stew.
Usually, there is a combination of beef and lamb with onion, carrot, and parsnip. A few herbs and spices are added and a tablespoon of Madeira wine is plopped in at the table.
That doesn’t sound so terrible that it is held up as the exemplar of the awfulness of British cooking. But, perhaps today’s recipes are interpretations of past horrors that have been improved for a new generation of foodies.
For the curious, there are several recipes on the Internet.
A shortcut has been suggested by a bit of a wag. Take the leftovers of Sunday’s roast beef, including vegetables and gravy and give them a whirl in a blender. Then add a dollop of sherry.
Queen Victoria’s Favourite?
Everywhere you turn on the Internet the broth is called, “The very soup reputed to have built the British Empire.” However, it proves impossible to track down the origin of that quotation. It also proves impossible to track down the origin of the dish itself.
It is frequently referred to as Queen Victoria’s favourite starter.
It appears in the Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook of 2012 vintage. One imagines Mrs. Patmore and Daisy turning out cauldrons of the stuff for Grantham family banquets.
But most food sleuths say there is no record of the dish appearing anywhere until well into the 20th century. It’s not to be found in Victorian cookbooks, newspaper stories, or hotel menus.
There are 19th century references to a Windsor Soup that was made with a combination of meats. There was also a rice-based White Windsor Soup. Apparently, diners could choose between a brown soup and a white soup to start.
Also, there was a Brown Windsor Soap that was introduced in 1818. One suggestion is that during World War II, when food shortages encouraged some strange creations to appear on the dinner table, the soup and the soap were conflated.
As the family sat down to eat and a bowl of brown sludge appeared, there might be a chorus of “Oh no Mum, not Brown Windsor Soap again.”
It looks as though the name is a mash-up; the dish existed in Victorian England, it just wasn’t called Brown Windsor Soup until much later.
More Brown Windsor Mysteries
References are constantly made to the “fact” that Brown Windsor Soup was served daily in British Railway dining cars. Except for that soup, being a substance susceptible to slopping over the sides of a bowl by the slightest lateral movement, is almost never served on trains.
In his 2017 book, The Lost Foods of England Glyn Hughes writes that “An extensive investigation carried out by the National Railway Museum … in 2013 found not one single reference to BWS in hundreds of archived menus …”
Scads of people claim they remember eating Brown Windsor Soup, but when pressed to recall where and when, they simply draw a blank.
It’s Spike Milligan’s Fault
In the 1950s, the great Irish comedy writer Spike Milligan created a radio program called The Goon Show for the BBC. (The show has been credited with being the inspiration for much of the comedy that followed including Monty Python’s Flying Circus.)
In October 1956, an episode was broadcast with the title The MacReekie Rising of ’74. Rebellious Scots attacked the Tower of London by firing porridge at the garrison.
The character Neddy Seagoon (played by Harry Secombe) says “Very well then. If the Scots want to make it a war on nutrition, we have an English dish in our armoury twice as deficient in calories as porridge and twice as deadly.”
Major Dennis Bloodnok (Peter Sellars – yes, that Peter Sellars): “Seagoon, you’re not going to fire ...”
Seagoon: “Yes, Brown Windsor Soup.”
The dish cropped up frequently as a running gag in later scripts. One such was when a character declares “I successfully changed all the Chinese back into Englishmen by giving them injections of Brown Windsor Soup.”
(Admittedly, it’s a style of humour that has seen better days but there is a certain nostalgia among old writers for when comedy did not involve an endless stream of profanities.)
BWS found its way into Carry On movies and, later, an episode of Fawlty Towers.
If the dish was named after the royal family in Victorian times, and it probably wasn’t, it would have to be called Brown Saxe-Coburg and Gotha Soup, because the family name did not become Windsor until 1917, when the original German one was deemed unpatriotic in light of the Great War.
The Poke is a British satirical website that advertises itself as “Time well wasted.” For Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee in 2012, it offered cans of Brown Windsor Soup for £40. “A classic, hearty British soup … Ingredients include: Scottish mineral water, swan parts, gin, carrots, and a manservant who dared to make eye contact with Prince Philip.”
Responding to an online article about BWS, a writer reminisced “I remember school lunch (Coleshill, Warwickshire, U.K., circa 1948/9) Brown Windsor Soup, thin and almost tasteless, I hated it, but had to sup it. Haven’t had since, nearly 70 years ago!”
- “The Greedy Queen: Eating With Victoria Review – Nothing Dainty About These Dishes” Lucy Lethbridge, The Guardian, May 28, 2017.
- “The Curious Tale of Brown Windsor Soup.” Lovefood.com, November 15, 2016.
- “Brown Windsor Soup.” Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, undated.
- “Sam’s Historical Recipe Corner: Brown Windsor Soup.” Sam Nutt, BBC History, undated.
- “The Lost Foods of England.” Glyn Hughes, Denver House, 2017.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor