As the nights draw in, the thoughts of all honest folk turn to soup. So pull the curtains and gather around the hearth while Bill Knott tells the story of how the British came to be so bowled over
My Sunday school teacher looked at me in deep frustration. He had just related the story of how
Esau had exchanged his birthright for a mess of pottage: I, healthy of appetite and especially partial to my mother’s vegetable soup, had merely enquired of him why it was such a bad deal. Perhaps Esau was rather peckish, and what was a birthright anyway? I knew you couldn’t eat it, and anything you couldn’t swallow, catapult, set fire to or pull the legs off held very little interest for an eight-year-old boy.
The soup my mother made from the bounty of her allotment had a particular flavour that I have never found in any other soup, probably because the vegetables were neither peeled, nor especially well cleaned. With a few slices of warm, homemade, lavishly-buttered bread, it was the flavour of my childhood. I have eaten tom ka gai in a Bangkok street market, gazpacho on a hillside in Andalusia, laksa in a Kuala Lumpur shack and tortilla soup in a splendidly squalid Mexican pulqueria, and jolly fine they all were, too: but nothing will ever taste quite like the soup I had every week as a child.
I still crave it sometimes, as the Indian abroad dreams of dhal and rice, or the homesick oligarch yearns for a bowl of borscht. There is something uniquely comforting about soup: smooth, soothing and profoundly aromatic, nursery contentment in a bowl.
Where, you might wonder, does this liquid elixir come from? The history of soup is murkier than the average consommé: the word itself comes from Old English, and is related to both supper and sops, the chunks of bread – primitive croutons, you might say – over which broth was poured. By extension, some time in the 17th century, this became the broth itself. It was at about this time that it became fashionable to serve soup without the sops, often as a starter, which may explain why the word has stuck.
The idea of chucking vegetables, grain and meat in a pot, covering them with water and boiling them is hardly new, nor is it specific to a particular culture. This is also where the boundary between soup and stew becomes a little blurred: personally, I think a good rule of thumb is that anything you cannot eat with a soup spoon is not a soup.
Sometimes, the dish can be both soup and stew. The broth is poured off and served first, with the meat (or fish) and vegetables served afterwards, as a main course: Provençal bouillabaisse is a good example, as is cawl, the Welsh soup/stew made, typically, with mutton and leeks, although modern versions tend towards a one-pot chunky soup. Very good it is, too, as visitors to the annual cawl competition in Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire, will attest: held on St David’s Day, the ‘cawl trail’ takes in a dozen or so establishments, each vying for the coveted title of Cawl Cooking Champions of the World. Local restaurant The Mulberry won this year.
It is the great regional diversity of Britain’s soups that is so impressive. Take Cullen skink: ‘skink’ comes from an old word for a beef shinbone, but – since Cullen is a small fishing town on the Moray Firth – it is perhaps not surprising that the locals make their soup from smoked haddock, not beef. Thickened with potatoes and enriched with milk or cream, it has become a classic, mainly because the great Scottish food writer Marian McNeill singled out Cullen’s version in her 1929 book The Scots Kitchen: in fact, you will find versions of skink in villages all along the coast between Inverness and Aberdeen.
Thanks to Britain’s new-found obsession with our gastronomic heritage, many soups have now been rescued from the culinary dustbin and are, once again, taking their rightful place at the table. The Victorians and Edwardians loved their soup – Eliza Acton’s classic Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in 1855, lists 70 different soups, including one bearing the name of the celebrated soprano Jenny Lind, the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, made with sago, cream, meat broth and eggs. She was in the habit of taking it ‘before she sang, as she found the sago and eggs soothing to the chest’.
Soups suffered sorely in post-war Britain. Brown Windsor – when properly made – is a thing of beauty: in essence, a puréed beef stew with meat left in shreds. It could be quite luxurious: an 1896 recipe by Theodore Garrett includes three boiled calf’s feet, a bottle of Madeira and a dozen quenelles of crayfish. Thirty years ago, however, it had become a staple of grim boarding houses, and even earned the dubious accolade of a place on the menu at Fawlty Towers. Often the bastard offspring of a stock cube and left-over gravy, it summed up all that was worst about British food: a dismal way to start a meal, from the bleak days when the other starter options were a stubborn wedge of unripe melon or a glass of warm, tinned orange juice.
Now, Brown Windsor soup is so trendy that such culinary luminaries as Mark Hix and Jamie Oliver have written recipes for it. It has yet, I think, to appear on the menu at state banquets as it did in the 19th century – Queen Victoria was a huge fan – but its rehabilitation is almost complete. The great Anglo-Indian soup, mulligatawny, is also making a comeback: it is one of the signature dishes at the smart new Gilbert Scott restaurant in St Pancras station, a whole quail submerged in its spicy depths.
Perhaps the soup with the greatest claim to antiquity is pea soup: in the age before freezing and canning, the only way to preserve a springtime crop of peas was to dry them, and rehydration – boiling them in water – would have created pea soup by default. It was enormously popular in Ancient Greece: Athenian street vendors were selling pea soup in the 6th century BC. It earned a mention in Aristophanes’s Birds, and its reputation for inducing flatulence was much exploited in the ribald comedies of the day. The Romans were fans, too: especially Spartacus well, Kirk Douglas in the movie, anyway), who ignited the slaves’ revolt by drowning the cruel gladiator trainer Marcellus in a cauldron of bean soup.
Britain, too, has a long history of eating pea soup: before potatoes arrived from the New World, pease (a singular form: ‘pea’ is an incorrect back-formation), in the form of pease pudding, was an important staple of the medieval diet. The rich would eat it as a side dish to stews and roasts; for the poor, however, it was a meal in itself. A version of pea soup, made with yellow split peas, was popular in Victorian London, lending its name to the poisonous smogs which plagued the city until the Clean Air Act of 1956, the notorious ‘pea-souper’.
Nothing is homelier than a bowl of soup, but what do you do when you are thousands of miles from a proper kitchen and with no access to fresh meat or vegetables? This was the problem that, for centuries, faced the Royal Navy. Lime juice was fine for avoiding scurvy, a tot of rum helped with the tedium of life on board, but how could you make nourishing broth from a dearth of ingredients?
Step forward Mrs Dubois, a London tradeswoman, and the aptly named William Cookworthy, who, in 1756, won the contract to supply the Navy with ‘portable soup’, a gluey reduction of meat soup, which just needed boiling with water. Captain Cook was so convinced of its benefits that he issued daily rations to each man under his command. Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels are liberally peppered with references to portable soup: in The Commodore, the ship’s doctor Maturin tracks down his own supply of the stuff, considering it ‘infinitely superior to the Victualling Board’s second-hand carpenter’s glue’.
Nowadays, of course, supermarket shelves groan under the weight of ‘convenience’ soups, in packets and cans, and they have their uses (I was once slavishly addicted to a dip made from packet onion soup mix and soured cream, and bullshot – tinned beef consommé served chilled with a slug of vodka – is a terrific pick-me-up), but proper soup has to be made from scratch.
A little work with knife, saucepan and blender will repay itself a thousand times. You do not need birds’ nests, sharks’ fins or turtles (mock or otherwise) and you do not need to be a Michelin-starred maestro at the stove: just don’t scrub the vegetables too fiercely.
Bill Knott is former associate editor of the much-missed Eat Soup magazine