This recipe is an attempt to recreate a dish served at the legendary Pontack’s Head tavern in Abchurch Lane, which reigned supreme as London’s foremost eatery at the close of the seventeenth century.
It is listed in the Johnson Family Receipts manuscript as Crayfish Pottage, but the instructions give so much leeway in terms of ingredients, it’s more appropriate to call it a seafood pottage. It would appear that the Johnson Family, or whomever composed the recipes in the manuscript, was a great admirer of the fare at Pontack’s, as there are no fewer than four entries ascribed to that establishment. Whether they were frequent visitors or merely collected the receipts from others, it gives a glimpse into the type of food served and enjoyed there by Pepys, Swift, Defoe and London’s society elite.
Although luxurious, with ready-prepared seafood and good quality fish stock, it is ready in mere moments.
1 litre fish stock
250g soft white breadcrumbs
4 spring onions, finely chopped
½ tsp ground mace
½ tsp ground allspice
400g prepared crayfish tails, prawns, lobster, cockles, mussels, shrimp
1 handful fresh parsley
8 sprigs dill
2 large yolks
150ml double cream
salt and pepper to taste
Put the fish stock, breadcrumbs, onion, mace and allspice into a pan and simmer for 10 minutes
until slightly reduced.
Whisk the yolks with the cream and mix into the soup, stirring as the mixture thickens.
Add the prepared seafood and allow to warm through.
Strip the fresh herbs from the stalks, chop finely and stir into the soup.
Taste, and season with salt and pepper.
Serve with crusty bread and toast sippets.
A pottage is a thickened, substantial cross between a soup and a stew. I was drawn to this recipe by the lazy cook in me that is always looking for a simpler, easier way to achieve tasty food.
When this recipe was jotted down three hundred years ago, it would have been quite hard work to prepare: collecting the mussels, cleaning them, steaming them, straining the sand from the broth, etc.
Luckily for us, we have the luxury of buying what someone else has collected and cleaned, and also cooked. Whilst you can certainly buy fresh mussels in their shells and prepare them yourself, cooked mussels and prepared fish stock can bring this dish together in just minutes. I’ve been rather specific with the number of mussels, however you should feel free to increase this quantity with abandon, if so inclined.
500ml fish stock
4 slices of white bread, crusts removed
2 blades mace
½ tsp ground allspice
3 large yolks
1tbs anchovy sauce
32 cooked mussels
2tbs chopped parsley to serve
Put the stock, water, bread, spices and anchovy sauce into a pan and bring to a boil.
Turn the heat down and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat, fish out the mace and purée with a stick blender.
Mix the cream, anchovy sauce and the yolks together and whisk into the soup.
Set aside 12 mussels for garnish and add the remainder to the soup. Warm gently.
When ready to serve, melt the butter in a pan and when hot, quickly toss the mussels set aside for garnish in the hot butter for about a minute, to heat through .
Serve garnished with the fried mussels and a sprinkle of chopped parsley.