In the 21st century, the word ‘bisque’ is commonly used to refer to thick, blended soups with cream and sometimes thickened with rice. Often made with lobster, or other crustaceans like shrimps/prawn, crab or crayfish.
Cream-based soups with tomato, mushrooms or squash are also being called bisques for some reason… even though checking several online French-English dictionaries indicate that “shellfish coulis” is part of the definition.
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Earliest Bisques Are Made With Pigeons (1651 or before)
Surprisingly, the earliest bisque recipes are made from squabs (young domestic pigeons). In François Pierre La Varenne‘s Le Cuisinier François, a cookbook published in 1651 and one of the most influential cookbooks in early French cuisine (from a translation by Terence Scully, 2006, p. 134-135):
Get squab, after they have been cleaned and trussed up–which you do by making a hole in the bottom of their belly with a knife and sticking their legs into it. Blanch them–that is, put them into a pot with boiling water or bouillon from the pot with your best bouillon. Be very careful not to let it darket. Dry your bread and simmer it in the dove bouillon; then set it out after it is well seasoned with salt, pepper and cloves. Garnish it with the doves, and with cockscombs, veal sweetbreads, mushrooms, mutton stock, then pistachios. Serve. Garnish the firm of the platter with slices of lemon.”
And an even more curious “bisque of eggs” popped up in a 1685 recipe book. It seems that at the point of inception a bisque could pretty much refer to anything since there were also mentions of meat and fish bisques.
“Pigeon bisque” continues to be a thing even up till at least 1972, where it is mentioned in a restaurant’s menu:
Yet Another Dish With Murky Origins
It is suggested that the word ‘bisque’ is a connection with the Spanish province of Bizcaya, which lends its name to the Bay of Biscay, but I haven’t really been able to find much info on this. [Perhaps this might lie in some old French text] A 1938 book suggests so, but it doesn’t seem to be backed up by anything except “they sound similar lol”.
“Bisque…A seasoned shellfish puree flavoured with white wine, Cognac and double (heavy) cream, used as the basis of a soup. The flesh of the main ingredient (crayfish, lobster or crab) is diced as for salpicon and used as a garnish. The shells are also used to make the initial puree. The word ‘bique’ has been in use for centuries and suggests a connection with the Spanish provice of Vizcaya, which lends its name to the Bay of Biscay. Bisque was originally used to decribe a highly spiced dish of boiled meat or game. Subsequently, bisques were made using pigeons or quails and garnished with crayfish or cheese croutes. It was not until the 17th century that crayfish became the principal ingredient of this dish, which soon after was also prepared with other types of shellfish. The word is now used imprecisely for several pink pureed soups.”
—Larousse Gatronomique, first published in Paris 1938, translated in 2001 (translations gotten from Foodtimeline)
Then the same text suggests that in the 17th-century crayfish bisque became popular…a strange thing to say considering that the earliest bisque we saw previously with squabs are in the 17th century. Either there’s a typo or misunderstanding somewhere, or early squab bisque recipes are not recorded before the 17th century. I’d say this source is unreliable, but it’s the best I got for now without learning French.
Early Bisque Thickeners Were Bread (1651 or before)
La Varenne’s second book in 1653 already had a Crayfish Bisque (though it was not named that):
“Potage of Crawfish.
Cleanse your Crawfish, and seeth them with wine and vinegar, salt and pepper. After they are sod, pick the feet and taile, and fry them with very fresh butter and a little parsley. Then take the bodies of your Crawfishes, and stamp them in a mortar with an onion, hard eggs, and crums of a loaf. Set them in stoving with some good herb broth or some other; if you will use pease porridge it must be very clear. After it is boiled, strain all together; after it is strianed set it before the fire. Then take some butter with a little minced parsley and fry it; then put into your broth well seasoned, and stove it with your dry crusts, covered with a dish or a plate. Put also on your bread a little of a hash of Carp, and juice of Mushrums; fill up your dish, and garnish it with your feet and tails lf Crawfish, with Pomegranate and juice ot Lemon, and serve.”
—The French Cook, Francois Pierre, La Varenne, translated into English in 1653 by I.D.G., with an introduction by Philip and Mary Hyman [Southover Press:East Sussex] 2001 (p. 121-2)
It would appear that the early crayfish bisques employ the technique of blending the shellfish together with the soup before straining (except they didn’t have blenders, so they used a mortar, duh). Thickeners for this early crayfish appears to be bread crumbs and “pease porridge”. Cream didn’t seem to be a part of bisques even up till mid 19th century:
“Crayfish Soup, or Bisque
Put 40 crayfish in a stewpan, with:
- 1 bottle Sauterene,
- 1 sliced onion
- 1 sliced carrot,
- 5 sprigs of parsley,
- 1 small pinch of cayenne pepper;
- 1 small sprig of thyme,
- 1 bay leaf,
- 1/2 oz. Of salt,
- 1 pinch of pepper
Boil for ten minutes; tossing the crayfish to cook them evenly; when done, take off the tails; free them of shell, and reserve them, to add to the soup. Put by the shells and the claws, to make the crayfish butter. Put the insides of the crayfish in the liquor in which they have been boiled; add 2 quarts of consomme, and 2 French rolls, previously cut in slices and dried in the oven, without being coloured; put the stewpan on the fire, and simmer for one hour; then pass the whole through a tammy-cloth, and pour the soup into another stewpan; stir over the fire till boiling takes place, and simmer for ten minutes; Prepare some crayfish butter in the following manner:– Put the shells and claws of the crayfish in a mortar; pound them well; add 1/4 lb. Of butter, and, when well mixed together put in a closed bain-marie placed in a stewpan half full of boiling water; boil thus for one hour; then press the butter through a broth napkin into a basin of cold water; when the butter is set, take it off the water; drain, and dry it with a cloth, and pass it through a fine hair sieve add a fourth part of the butter to 1/4 lb. Of Whiting Forcemat and, with it, form some quenelles of the size of a pea; poach them in some boiling broth; drain, and put them in a soup tureen, together with the trimmed crayfish tails. Boil up the soup; skim; and thicken it with the remaining crayfish butter; pour it in the soup tureen; and serve.”
“Crayfish Soup, or Bisque, au Maigre
Prepare 40 crayfish, as in the preceding recipe; remove the tails; pick, and put them by to add to the soup; Put all the shells and the bodies of the crayfish in a mortar; pound them well; put them in a stewpan with 3 quarts of Fish Consomme; boil for half an hour, and strain throguh a broth napkin; trim the tails; put them in the soup tureen with some Fish Forecemat Quenelles, made as above; pour the soup over them; and serve.
“Crayfish Soup with Cream
Put 40 crayfish in a stewpan; boil them with:
- 1 pint of consomme,
- 10 sprigs of parsely,
- 1 middle-sized sliced carrot,
- 2 middle-sized onions cut in slices;
Boil for ten minutes,–tossing the crayfish occasionally; when done, remove the tails; pick them, and put them by; Pound the bodies, claws, and shells in a mortar; put them in a stewpan, with 5 pints Chicken Consomme; boil; and simer for one hour; Make a roux in a stewpan, with 1/2 lb.of butter, and 1/4 lb. Of flour; stir over the fire for five minutes; Strain the consomme from the pounded crayfish; add it to the roux in the stewpan; stir on the fire for twenty minutes; add 1 pint of double cream, 1/2 pint at a time; and, when the soup is sufficently reduced, strain it through a tammy cloth, into a bain-marie-pan to keep warm; Five minutes before serving, boil up the soup, and add another 1/2 pint of double cream; put the crayfish tails in the soup tureen; pour the soup over; and serve.”
—Royal Cookery Book, Jules Gouffe, translated from the French and adapted for English use by Alphonse Gouffe [Sampson Low, Son, and Marson:London] 1869 (p. 249-250)
The three recipes above from the same book refer to a cream-less crayfish bisque as bisque, but the one with cream and most similar to our 21st century version is just a “crayfish soup with cream”.
Cream and Rice Came Somewhere Late 19th Century to early 20th Century
In 1903, Escoffier‘s 1903 French restaurant cuisine cookbook then solidified bisque as one with crayfish or lobsters, thickened with rice and then finished with cream. Given how influential Escoffier is, it’s not surprising that this is what we now know as traditional bisque today.
665. Bisque or Coulis d’Ecrevisses–Bisque or Cullis of Crayfish
- 30 small crayfish, approximately 40 g (1 1/2 oz) each
- For the Mirepoix:
- 50 g (2 oz) carrots
- 50 g (2 oz) onions
- 50 g (2 oz) butter
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1/2 bayleaf
- 3 parsley stalks
- 1 small tbs flamed brandy
- 2 dl (7 fl oz or 7/8 U.S.cup) white sugar
For the Thickening and Moistening:
- 120-150 g (4-5 oz) rice
- 1 1/2 litres (2 5/8 pt or 6 1/2 U.S. cups) White Bouillon
- 1 dl (3 1/2 lf oz or 1/2 U.S. cup) cream
- 150 g (5 oz) butter.
- Cut the carrots, onions and parsley stalks into very small dice and cook to a light brown in the butter together with the thyme and the bayleaf. Wash the crayfish, remove the tails then cook the crayfish with the Mirepoix until they turn red. Season with 12 g (1/3 oz) salt and a little milled pepper, sprinkle with the brandy and the wine and allow to cook gently to reduce. Add 1 « dl (9 lf oz or 1 1/8 U.S. cups) White Bouillon and allow to cook gently for 10 minutes.
- Cook the rice in 7 « dl (1 1/3 pt or 3 1/4 U.S. cups) of the White Bouillon.
- Shell the crayfish and reserve all the tails and ten of the heads.
- Finely pound the remainder of the shells, add the rice and its cooking liquid together with the cooking liquid from the crayfish.
Pass through a fine sieve ad dilute this puree with 5 dl (18 fl oz or 1 1/4 U.S. cups) White Bouillon. Bring to the boil, pass through a fine strainer and keep in the Bain-marie.
Finish the soup before serving with 150 g (5 oz) butter and 1 dl (3 « fl oz or « U.S. cup) cream; correct the seasoning and add a little Cayenne.
Garnish: Cut the reserved crayfish tails in dice and add to the soup. Serve separately the ten crayfish heads which have been trimmed, cleaned and filled with a fish and cream forcemeat and cooled at the last moment.”
“668. Bisque or Cullis of Lobster.
Repace the crayfish with 1 kg (2 2/4 lb) small live lobsters cut into sections. Saute with the Mirepoix and proceed in exactly the same way as for Bisque of Crayfish using rice for thickening. Garnish: Small dices of the reserved loster meat.”
—The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, A. Escoffier, originally published in 1903, translated by H.L. Cracknell and R.J. Kaufmann [John Wiley:New York] 1979 (p. 88)
Ramblings: the above was compiled as research for a video comparing bisque and Hokkien Prawn Noodles (Hae Mee, the soup version). I will update this post with the video link as soon as it is up.