Chef Phil Pyle has this thing about not repeating menu items that he and Chef Brian Shaw prepare at Fair Hill Inn. But every rule has an exception. His is oyster stew.
“We have never repeated a single dish in nearly six years,” Pyle says, “but there is one soup that we like to sneak on the menu, a personal favorite of both Brian and I—oyster stew. You cannot get more regional (perhaps micro-regional) or beloved than this very simple soup, so simple, and exact for that matter, that any deviation from the traditional really offends the natives. I remember one time adding onion and bacon to the soup and caught the ire of more than a few guests.”
It’s not surprising that the locals love their soups—particularly the traditional ones. After all, we live in a countryside that boasts a cornucopia of local produce, one where mushroom barns dot the landscape like agricultural trailer parks and where there is a bounty of crabs, oysters, and other seafood in the two bays that frame the countryside between Conowingo and Philadelphia.
Crab chowder? We got that. Oyster stew? Ditto. Mushroom soup, maybe with some Brandywine Valley pumpkin thrown in? Sure thing. Snapper soup with sherry? Our mouths are watering.
“For us at Fair Hill, regional soups are tied to what is traditionally grown and/or found in the region,” Pyle says. “To this end, we do not go into a menu thinking about a specific type of soup we intend to create, but we look at what type of ‘soup base’ we want to use that is in season and develop the soup from there.”
“Being in the ‘Mushroom Capital of the World,’ mushroom soup is one of our region’s strengths,” says Tim Smith, owner/chef of Twelves Bistro in West Grove. In fact, he makes four different styles that find their way on and off the menu. “I usually make four different types—broth-based, pureed, a country-style with a cream base where the mushrooms are left in slices, and a blended version of pureed and country-style,” Smith says.
The variation on a mushroom goes beyond Twelves. The Back Burner in Hockessin has a signature soup that has been on its menu for decades, blending mushrooms with pumpkins, which are also grown in huge volumes in the Brandywine Valley. Catherine’s in Unionville also has a mushroom-based signature soup, but Chef Kevin McMunn adds local crabmeat to the mushrooms.
“The pureed mushroom soup is one of our most popular,” says Twelves’ Smith. “It’s comprised simply of mushrooms, mirepoix (celery, carrots, and onions), heavy cream, vegetable stock that is thickened with roux (paste of flour and oil or butter), and pureed into a silky smooth consistency.”
The Hilltop Crab House in Toughkennamon is well known for its all-the-crabs-you-can-eat menu, but Chef Jaime Campbell also makes a tasty Maryland crab soup. In many ways, Maryland crab soup is to creamy crab soup what Manhattan clam chowder is to New England clam chowder. Both the Maryland and Manhattan versions of crab and clam are generally much spicier, but the main difference is the substitution of tomato stock for cream as a soup base.
Snapper soup—originally made from local, water-based snapping turtle, along with a distinctive “twang” of sherry—was once very popular at many local restaurants, and the Old Original Bookbinders brand of canned turtle soup can still be purchased.[quote]
But snapper soup is less popular today than it once was for two reasons. One is the environmental concern for turtle preservation, as it takes decades for a population to re-generate itself. The other is that the traditional thick consistency of its stock, heavy and viscous, is less appealing to palates no longer influenced by British tastes. That said, it is still a menu star at the Wilmington Country Club.
Of course, both home cooks and professional chefs who embrace seasonal cooking always look forward to root-vegetable soups, such as those made from potatoes, carrots, and turnips. These soups are often heavily spiced to add depth to the earthy flavors, and they are generally pureed and cream-based, unlike vegetable stews, where the vegetables remain in larger chunks.
While French onion soup is, well, French, and not local, the ingredients can certainly be local. Locally grown onions blended with locally baked whole-grain bread and artisan cheeses from the growing number of local producers give reasons for home cooks to create their own Brandywine American onion soup.
Finally, not all regional soup is vegetarian or seafood based. Freshly hunted venison, rabbit, and squirrel are all welcome additions to the soup pot.
Twelves Mushroom Overload Soup
Chef Tim Smith
3 lbs. Assorted local mushrooms
(shitakes, oyster, creminis), sliced and washed
2 Onions, small dice
1 Head celery, small dice
2 Carrots, peeled, small dice
3 Cloves garlic, smashed
1 oz. Sherry
12 cups Vegetable stock
1 pint Heavy cream
1 lb. Butter
1 cup Flour
Salt and pepper to taste
In large pot with olive oil, sweat onions, garlic and half of the mushrooms until soft. Add sherry, cook for 2 minutes, add vegetables and stock and simmer.
In a separate pot, melt butter, and mix in flour to make roux.
In a separate pan, sauté remaining mushrooms and set aside.
To the main pot, add heavy cream and simmer. Season. With stick blender, puree until smooth, add roux and puree again.
When smooth and thickened, add remaining mushrooms, cook slowly, simmer for 30 minutes. Do final seasoning.
Serve with herb garnish, if desired, and hearty bread.
Fair Hill Inn Oyster Stew
Chefs Phil Pyle and Brian Shaw
1 pint Oysters and their liqueur
1 quart Milk
1/4 stick Butter
Salt and pepper
Old Bay brand seasoning
In a large pan, gradually heat the milk, butter, and salt and pepper until it comes to a slow boil.
Add oysters just at the end to make the lips/edges curl. Do not overcook.
Sprinkle with Old Bay to taste and serve with oyster crackers or crusted bread.