Much ado about mushrooms

Known as ‘the king of chefs and chef of kings’, culinary legend Auguste Escoffier named his mushroom soup in honour of Agnès Sorel, the favourite of King Charles VII and France’s first officially recognised royal mistress. Charles was so besotted with Sorel that in 1443 he held a joust in her honour in Nancy, during which he paid off all the other jousters so that he could win and look heroic in front of his beloved.

Centuries ahead of her time, Sorel caused scandal within the French court due to her penchant for low-cut gowns, which she popularised among her peers, her dresses often surpassing the queen’s in length and luxury. Keen to preserve her beauty, she used snail saliva to ward off wrinkles and bathed in asses’ milk. Lacking a Lancôme of the day, Sorel had to get inventive with her make-up, using ground up cuttlefish bones as foundation and the red dye from poppy petals as lipstick.

Agnès Sorel, who bore Charles VII four daughters, depicted by Jean Fouquet

A lover of the finer things in life, Sorel hired the best chefs of the day to cook for the king, and is said to have been a dab hand in the kitchen herself. It is unclear why Escoffier named his mushroom soup in her honour, though he had a tendency to name his dishes after famous women – his peach melba is named after Australian soprano Nellie Melba. But enough about Escoffier, let’s get back to Julia…

With Storm Dennis raging outside, I battened down the hatches and fired up my hob, figuring a hearty bowl of cream of mushroom soup would serve as ideal central heating. Trying to be clever, I bought a pack of mixed wild mushrooms and a more pedestrian pack of chestnut button mushrooms. Given their array of shapes, the wild shrooms don’t really work in this soup – you need the uniformity and daintiness of the button mushrooms as this is a dish that doesn’t require a blender.

The chicken stock base gives the soup a lovely richness and savoury flavour

The first step is to fry a diced onion on a low heat in butter then create a roux of sorts with two tablespoons of flour. Julia’s recipe calls for over two pints of chicken stock, which seemed excessive for a single serving, so I halved the measurements. As with her garlic soup, Child’s mushroom soup is given aromatic depth by the addition of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf into the stock. She also suggests adding the stems of the mushrooms to the stock to enrich it with earthy flavour.

While it simmers, you’ll notice a skin forming on the top of the stock, which needs to be skimmed off every five minutes or so. It’s worth tasting the soup as you go along to discover the different flavours at different stages. At this point it was super savoury and full of chicken flavour from the stock. While the stock is simmering you have to slice the button mushrooms into thin strips and fry them on a low heat with butter, salt and lemon. A word of warning – go easy on the salt. I got a bit too gung-ho and nearly ended up spoiling the soup by over seasoning it.

Julia’s gloriously creamy mushroom soup is delightful on a winter’s day

After 20 minutes the stock needs straining. As with the lobster bisque, it’s important to try and extract as much flavour as you can from the herbs and mushroom stems, which can be enjoyed on toast at a later date. I was amazed by how little soup there was left after straining, but it gets padded out with cream after the mushrooms have been simmered for 10 minutes with the strained soup.

To thicken it, whisk two egg yolks with a quarter of a pint of cream. I added quite a lot more cream than the recipe required, turning the pale brown soup beige. Once all of the soup has been added to the creamy egg mixture you’re supposed to add butter to it, but, even for me, this seemed excessive, so I abstained, garnishing it with a few sprigs of parsley and a handful of pepper croutons.

The soup had a luxuriously creamy texture and wonderful savoury taste, but it was too salty. I managed to salvage it by adding a squeeze of lemon to the bowl, which I’d recommend doing anyway as it gives the rich ensemble a lovely lemon lift. It may not have been a soup fit for a king, but with all that cream and butter, I’m sure it’s something extravagant epicure Agnès Sorel would have approved of.

Published by lucyelizabethshaw

I'm a globetrotting wine writer by day and gluttonous food blogger by night. Having once written a wine blog that I dearly miss, in 2020 I will attempt to master the art of French cooking with a little help from Julia Child, having been inspired to do so after watching Nora Ephron's fantastically funny and supremely comforting Julie and Julia. Come and join me on my culinary journey...

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