Alexis Soyer and The Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations. 1851.

by

Fred Peskett

 

            Today, ‘Alexis Soyer’, ‘The Gastronomic Symposium’ and ‘Gore House’ are names which nobody would have a clue as to what they represent, but in 1851 at the time of the Great Exhibition they would have meant a great deal, particularly if you were fairly wealthy or from the Upper Classes.

            Alexis Soyer was born in Paris in 1809 and as a vocation trained as a chef, he came to London to seek his fortune in 1842 and became the manager of the well respected Reform Club in Pall Mall where his organization of the kitchens and his Gallic menus had made him something of a celebrity. In 1846 he had written and published a book ‘The Gastronomic Regenerator’. He invented a sauce which was marketed by Messrs. Crosse & Blackwell, also a relish which he called ‘Ozmazone’ a sort of meat extract and a fruit sauce ‘Soyer’s Nectar’ both of which were also marketed by Crosse & Blackwell. He invented a spirit stove which he called ‘The Magic Stove’ and as a publicity stunt he cooked a meal on one at the top of a Pyramid. In 1847 he invented a portable soup-boiler to help the poor of London, and went to Ireland to supervise his invention in the provision of 9,000 meals a day for the poor of Dublin.

            Alexis Soyer was horrified to learn that the catering arrangements for the forth-coming Great Exhibition did not include any hot meals, only cold platters, pickles and buns, and the strongest beverage would be Ginger Beer. Soyer doubted that this form of refreshment would have no impact on the success of the exhibition, so he had the idea of setting up an alternative establishment to cater for those who could afford the luxury of high class dining and found that a large mansion ‘Gore House’ was up for sale just across the road from the Exhibition building. He purchased the house using the revenue from his book and set about converting the house into a huge restaurant which he called ‘The Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations’. On the grand staircase he had painted a great panorama by his artist friend George Augustus Sala which he called ‘The Grand Macedoine of All Nations’ featuring Greek Goddesses to current Political Statesmen, one huge room was decorated as a Baronial Banqueting Hall in the Gothic style, there was a Banqueting Bridge and a Monster Pavilion of All Nations which had a table and tablecloth some 307 feet long, where 1,500 people could dine at one sitting There were several smaller dining rooms for select parties to wine and dine. Always seeking the fast buck, he charged one guinea to visit the kitchens between noon and 2pm, where over 600 joints of meat were being cooked. The amount of money spent on decoration and the entertainment extravaganzas hardly made a profit for Soyer, but he thought it worthwhile to keep going.

 

 

Gore House, Kensington, as it was around the time of the Great Exhibition.

 

            It seemed that all the world and his wife went to the Symposium to dine, but Punch magazine was critical about the ‘over-the-top’ decor in saying ‘ However good thy palate be, we must dispute thy taste’. Soyer also provided entertainment in the form of orchestras, and strolling minstrels, each afternoon there was the attraction of a balloon ascent. The rich and famous patronized the Symposium including Disraeli and Thackeray, Soyer also catered for various clubs and societies and thought that once the Exhibition was over, he would make the establishment a permanent London feature.

        A close friend, Jullien, a composer and famous conductor of the time suggested that they seek a license to build a Music Hall in the grounds, and this was applied for to the planning committee. It was well known that some of the parties held at the Symposium tended to get a little out of hand and during one of the more riotous sessions the Chairman of the Middlesex Sessions happened to be in the grounds, he made it known that on no account would a license to build a Music Hall in the grounds of Gore House would ever be granted to Soyer. On hearing this Soyer became so furious that he closed the Symposium in a rage. It cost him £7,000 to pay off all his debts and left him with just £100 to his name. Soyer bounced back by inventing an aromatic mustard for Crosse & Blackwell, and published a new book on the history of food preparation ‘Pantropheon’, but his fame was re-kindled when he developed his Magic Stove into the Field Kitchens used by the Army during the Crimean War.

            Gore House was built in 1750 and purchased by Admiral Lord Rodney, renovated in 1808 by William Wilberforce, and was later the home of the Countess of Blessinton, writer and society hostess. Among her friends and house guests were Lord Byron, Benjamin Disraeli, Louis Napoleon and Charles Dickens. The House was demolished in 1857 to make way for The Royal Albert Hall which now stands on the site, so in one sense Soyer’s dream of a Music Hall became a reality. As for the Great Exhibition catering, well, they provided 2,000,000 buns, 1,100,000 bottles of mineral water and over 1,000 gallons of pickles to over 6,000,000 visitors, hardly the failure Soyer may have predicted!

 

© Exhibition Study Group 2008

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