Soyer’s Symposium of All Nations

by Sam Bilton on May 17, 2021 No comments

Alexis Soyer is remembered for many things. He was saviour of the Irish famine creating soup kitchens capable of feeding thousands of starving people. The Soyer Stove revolutionised army catering during the Crimean War (and beyond). Perhaps a little less is known about his Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations situated in Gore House close to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

As Chef du Jour Soyer and his experience of mass catering Soyer was perhaps the obvious choice to officiate over the food and beverage arrangements for the Great Exhibition. The flamboyant chef declined the invitation from the exhibition’s executive committee to tender for the contract (Soyer had in fact unsuccessfully submitted a design for the exhibition hall itself but the committee chose Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace instead).

Together with business partner Joseph Feeny, Soyer turned Gore House, former residence of society hostess Lady Blessington, into a pleasure dome Kublai Khan would envy. With his ‘enchanter’s wand’ he created  an enthralling experience that promised to:

…triumph over geographical limits, and laugh the restrictions of space to scorn. From all quarters of the globe, civilised or uncivilised, will his visitors come – the doors of the Symposium will be thrown open to universal humanity.

A Veritable Xanadu…

With thanks to Frank Clement-Lorford for supplying this image (alexis-soyer.com)

On entering the Symposium, people were greeted by a massive hand above their heads clutching arrows of Jove (another name for Jupiter the Roman god of sky and thunder) while along side Soyer’s illuminated name flashed as if lit by repeated bolts of lightning. Visitors could casually traipse around the globe, room by room, discovering Grecian temples, showers of ‘gems’, Chinese lanterns and tropical plants. There was even a room decked out in real ice (which had to be replenished on a daily basis) to replicate the Arctic. Each area of Gore House had been dedicated to a different geographic location designed to be more awe inspiring than the previous room. This veritable Xanadu would have been just as alluring to the Victorians as the twinkling skyline of Las Vegas is to us today.

The fun continued in the pleasure garden, or the Pré D’Orsay, where troubadours and acrobats performed and fireworks exploded in the sky on a nightly basis. Soyer’s symposium more than made up for the temperate nature of the neighbouring exhibition. The Washington Refreshment Room sold the latest American cocktails like Mint Juleps. The more adventurous symposiasts could visit the Impenetrable Grotto of Ondine – a crystal grotto designed so that water and fish appeared to be suspended above the visitors heads (‘A miniature Thames Tunnel!’). A cascade on the summit of the grotto shrouded the exterior and entrance in a fine mist thus preventing all but the most intrepid of visitors from entering (although you could hire an umbrella for 4 pence to avoid a soaking). Once inside the dry grotto, visitors would be greeted by a statuette of Hebe, cup bearer to the gods, which dolled out real liqueurs like maraschino.

Cosmopolitan Cookery…

But what of the food? ‘Cosmopolitan customs should demand cosmopolitan cookery’ quotes Soyer’s biographer François Volant who provides a detailed description of the symposium in Chapter XVI. 

The Great Exhibition ‘Wot is to Be’. (Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1963 https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/395560

A palace of fairies is he making of it – truly a Symposium of all nations, as Sir Soyer (faithful to his Bacchanalian tradition, and proud of his religion of the apron has styled it). Halls are here filled in  manner of all nations accommodated by the presiding taste of SIR ALEXIS. The Saloon of Italy, the Saloon of Turkey, the Saloon of Spain; the Hall of France, the Hall of Old England. You may consume the cockaliquet of the mountains of Scotland, the garbanzos of Castille, the shamrocks of Ireland, the macaroni of Vesuvius, the kari of the Ganges and the cabob of the Bosphorus; you may call here for the golden juice of the Rhine, and the purple draught of the Garoone, as for the whiski of the Liffi, and the Afandaf (liquor which I adore) of the Thames. SIR SOYER will soon be prepared to to furnish you with all these,’ wrote Gobemouche (a pen name used by W M Thackeray) in Punch during 1851.

It was possible to eat inside Gore House in one of the elaborately decorated rooms. ‘The cooking at Soyer’s Symposium was of the very highest class – that is to say, if you had a cabinet particulier,’ noted George Sala.

Catering for the Masses…

Not all visitors could afford the luxury of dining in a private room. Nor could the private rooms accommodate a large number of guests in one sitting. The answer was to build two massive dining areas outside. The Baronial Hall was designed to look like a medieval castle although it was in fact a marquee with a roof made from recycled panels left over from the construction of the Crystal Palace. This could seat 500 guess in a horseshoe formation and was used for formal dinners like the press banquet Soyer gave for 200 ‘literati of all nations’ in May 1851.

Soyer and Feeny had invested a lot of money in the Symposium. They aimed to recoup their investment and more by serving 5000 diners a day (although they never realised this number). The Encampment of all Nations was capable of holding 1500 diners at one time including an immense table over 30 meters long and covered with a single table cloth (which was stolen on 1st July 1851). This operated like a canteen where visitors could dine for a shilling and according to Sala was ideal ‘for those who prefer the promiscuous refectation of a public banquet.’

A large outdoor kitchen was built to manage the 600 or so roasts, including one whole ox, Soyer anticipated serving each day. Rather than using coal fires and roasting jacks Soyer installed gas ovens which in themselves were an attraction as noted by one member of the press following the May banquet:

‘An immense baron of beef was cooked by gas in the garden; the uncovering of this novel apparatus was watched with interest, and the baron, on being removed, was carried to the feasting place by a troop of waiters, preceded by a band of music, playing ‘Oh the Roast Beef of England.’

Adieu to the Symposium…

Despite Soyer’s Symposium opening with much fanfare and excitement the sparkle of the enterprise was soon to fade. Sala later wrote that ‘the masses occasionally grumbled’ about the poor service and quality of the food. Punch published the following poem to sum up their feelings:

To M. Soyer, on his Symposium

Soyer, the praise thy skill deserves

Is perfectly immense,

For nice discernment in the nerves

Of gustatory sense.

But now Gore House has been by thee

So glaringly defaced

However good thy palate be,

We must dispute thy taste.

Soyer took various measures to improve the running and profitability of the Symposium. One idea was to install a music hall in the grounds but Soyer was refused an extension to his music licence by the local magistrate, Thomas Pownall. Pownall has been described as a ‘Temperance Society stalwart’. He chose to inspect the Symposium on the day a particularly raucous band of ‘country folk’ were visiting and was appalled by their behaviour. He deemed the Symposium ‘a receptacle of the commonest description’. It appears this was the last straw for the ill fated Symposium and Soyer closed the doors to the public on 14th October 1851.

During its short existence the Symposium made £21,000 but Volant notes that the overall cost of the project was £28,000. As Soyer’s friend Sala concluded ‘The result from a pecuniary point of view was catastrophe; and the energetic chef told me afterwards that he had come out of his Symposium enterprise with just £100 in cash, in the world.’

Beyond the barons of beef little is known of the food served either inside Gore House or in the large catering facilities in the garden, although there is a mention of whitebait in one article. Click here to see Soyer’s recipe for this popular tidbit.

Sources and Further Reading

Sam BiltonSoyer’s Symposium of All Nations

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