The good chef

<strong>Relish: the extraordinary life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian celebrity chef

</strong>Ruth Cow

Who is the one historical figure that every British primary-school child now studies? Not Hitler - he is too upsetting for pre-teens and only becomes ubiquitous at secondary level. Not Elizabeth I nor Cromwell; not Martin Luther King nor Gandhi. No, the most important person in history if you are aged between five and 11 is Mary Seacole, the Jamaican nurse who sold snuff, boots and tooth powder to British soldiers during the Crimean war. One eight-year-old I know has studied "Mother Seacole" twice already.

Seacole is a handy shorthand for the whole swathe of gender and post-colonial history which now dominates the academy. Florence Nightingale, who to previous generations was the angelic "lady with the lamp", is now taught solely as the racist snob who refused Seacole's application to join her group of nurses. The odd thing about the new cult of Seacole, though, is that children are generally given her story to study with so little wider context, as if it were not history at all, but a morality tale. If you were a child, you might be forgiven for thinking that the entire raison d'être of the Crimean war was to give Seacole her opportunity to serve Welsh rarebit to the troops at her British hotel in Scutari. The BBC Schools website tells children that "Mary" opened her hotel "two miles from the fighting in Balaklava", but gives no indication as to what this fighting was about. Maybe it is too much to expect five- to seven-year-olds doing Key Stage One to grapple with the fiendishly complex causes of the Crimean conflict, mapping the competing imperial ambitions of Russia, Britain and France for Ottoman holy lands. But couldn't we at least widen the cast-list out a bit beyond the loveable Seacole?

We could do worse than start with Seacole's great friend, the chef Alexis Soyer. Another Victorian immigrant, he transformed the British field kitchens in Crimea, teaching army cooks how to make decent food for large numbers, such as Marsala jelly or Turkish pilaff. Soyer spent many an evening drinking champagne bought from Seacole's shop. Seacole and Soyer used to joke that one day they would set up a great restaurant together, the French parvenu and the Creole outsider.

Studying Soyer would fit with the government's supposed new commitment to improving food in schools, for he was the Jamie Oliver of his day, combining extreme personal fame with commercial ventures on the one hand and philanthropy on the other. By the time he arrived in Scutari, he had already designed the kitchens at the Reform Club, collaborated with Crosse & Blackwell to market lucrative sauces with his name on the label and set up large-scale soup kitchens in Ireland during the potato famine, shaming Whitehall for its inaction, just as Jamie tried to shame the DfES over Turkey Twizzlers. What's more, Soyer had something of the clown about him, which is always appealing to children. He wore a slanted red beret whenever possible and insisted on having all of his flamboyant clothes cut "à la zougzoug" (in a zig-zag), which made him look instantly recognisable and rather comic.

Until recently Soyer wasn't much known, except among historians of food, though in his lifetime he was quite ridiculously famous. But over the past two years, in one of those strange quirks of modern publishing, he has been the subject of two full-length biographies. First, in 2004, came The People's Chef by Ruth Brandon, a book that tried, with limited success, to recreate some of Soyer's most famous recipes as a way inside his restless Victorian head. Now we have Relish by Ruth Cowen, a more serious and scholarly work which focuses less on his recipes and more on his many social achievements. Though sometimes hagiographic (and Soyer was no saint), it is much the better book.

Cowen begins her story in July 1830, with Soyer in Paris cooking a final defiant monarchist banquet for the French first minister, Polignac, as the Bourbon monarchy falls. Halfway through the meal, insurgents burst into the building and kill Polignac's guards. Thinking on his feet, Soyer swiftly changes sides, launching into the Marseillaise and making himself look like one of the rioting crowd.

He was to show the same flexible opportunism throughout his life. After he escaped France for England in 1830, Soyer conveniently swapped a sophisticated love of turbot and cheek of veal for an English appetite for chops and kidneys and even whelks sprinkled with vinegar. But when he needed to, he would play the gallant Frenchman for all it was worth, parading his knowledge of Périgord truffles and flirting with the ladies. Soyer was silly and self-promoting - one contemporary accused him of "inordinate vanity" - but he was generous and visionary, too. No one but Soyer would have had the chutzpah to bottle a disgusting-sounding blue fizzy drink made of citric acid and cinnamon, and market it as "Nectar" to his adoring public. Then again, no one but Soyer could have taught the troops to make decent frugal soup in the filthy heat of Scutari. Put that man on the National Curriculum!

Bee Wilson is writing a book about the history of adulteration

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?