Portable Soup: The Glue That Held Together An Age Of Exploration

For as long as the human race has been around, we’ve been explorers. And as long as we’ve been exploring, we’ve needed to figure out how to eat on long voyages. Sea voyages in particular posed a challenge with damp, unfavourable conditions making food preservation almost impossible. So when Captain James Cook set sail on August 26th, 1768, he made sure to come prepared. The expedition was mapped around the Pacific Ocean and slated to take 18 months so perishable items were a big no-no. Instead, Cook brought onboard a selection of livestock including pigs, poultry and goats for milking, and the star of the show was a bulk batch of Portable Soup. 

Known by many truly unappetising names including pocket soup and veal glue, this staple of expedition life was similar in texture and function to the modern-day bouillon cube. Though the ingredients and proportions varied as per the maker's preferences, the result was always the same. A solid, slightly rubbery slab with a meaty taste. Each crew member would be allotted a ration of portable soup which would then be reboiled with oats, green pea flour or fresh vegetables if they were available. This porridge would then be eaten for breakfast as a nutritious start to the day.

The process involved boiling down high-collagen animal bones like a leg of veal or a beef shank before straining off the broth and separating the meat to boil it again in fresh water. The two liquids were then combined and slowly evaporated until they formed a thick, gooey paste. Keep at it long enough and the gelatin in the bones turned the mixture into an almost solid jelly which could then be cut up into cakes and stored for years without going bad.  

Though it was generally accepted as the most efficient means of eating for these journeys, it was definitely not the most popular. For example, when Lewis and Clark set off on their famed expedition out West in 1804, they took with them a whopping 193 pounds of portable soup, but rarely chose to use it unless fresh food was truly unattainable. In fact, it was only 15 months into their journey during a gruelling 11-day trek across the Bitterroot Mountains that they really made any dent into those provisions.

The age of exploration may have made the portable soup more popular but it had been around for a while before that. In the 1500s, Sir Hugh Plat – an English agricultural writer and inventor – chronicled a recipe in his personal works that included ‘neats feete & leg of beeff … boiled to a great stiffness’ to which he recommended adding isinglass, collagen from the swim bladder of fish for more stiffness plus rosewater and saffron for scent and colour. 

Though not the most flavoursome meal, its utility and high-protein benefits were undeniable and that might lead you to wonder why it's no longer around today. That could be down to its arduous cooking process which could take up to 12 hours if not more or perhaps it was simply down to the rise of canning and food preservation which allowed people to store fresh vegetables and meat in a much more appetising way. 

The concept of portable soup survives in its own way thanks to Baron Justus von Liebig, a German organic chemist who discovered a method to concentrate beef solids and by the end of the 1800s, the Leibig’s Extract of Meat Company was responsible for manufacturing the ancestor of the bouillon cube in bulk and replacing portable soup forever. 

Image credit: lewisandclarksfortmandan/Instagram

Never fear, this little snippet of history can still be found in your kitchen. Whenever you make a broth with bones, you’re likely releasing the collagen from the bone marrow. Or the jelly that forms around a roast chicken after you put it in the fridge, that’s the same thing too. So next time you see it, spare a thought for portable soup, the food that helped us discover the world and became the lifeblood of exploration for over 500 years.