April 15, 2014

Back in Bulgaria

Filed under: History and culture,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 8:22 pm


Back in 2010, my son Bill moved his family to Sofia, Bulgaria, his first assignment as a foreign service officer.  I was over the moon–a 3-hour direct flight from Paris to my 4 grandchildren.  And there they all were, on the slopes of Mount Vitosha, just minutes in one direction to ski, in another direction to the fabulous 13th century Boyana Church, in another to a charming local restaurant for Bulgarian home cooking.

Who ever heard of Bulgarian cuisine?  I hadn’t and was eager to see what a complex ancient history, 500 years of Ottoman rule, and 50 years of Soviet-led communism had done to the food.

Famous worldwide for its yogurt (kiselo miyako) and its brined white cheese (sirenye), Bulgarian dishes are curiously heavy with new world foods–tomatoes, chili peppers (and paprika, the powdered version), beans, and potatoes–reputedly because, unlike suspicious Europeans, the Turks practically grabbed them out of Colombus’ hands and lavished them throughout their their empire.

The result?  Excellent and distinctive food…and, of course, soups.  In the weeks ahead, as I try to figure out how to revamp, I like to share some recipes that I’ll be adding to the new site.  First up:  Supa Topcheta (Meatball Soup), a traditional family favorite and staple of school cafeterias.  Adapted from “Mother Linda” Forristal’s Bulgarian Rhapsody.


Creamy, tangy, woodsy from the parsley, and with tender meatballs and the bite of carrots–this is soup for the hungry.  One of the most filling soups I’ve encountered.  Many recipes add tomatoes (in brackets), and you can convert it from a meal to a substantial course by omitting or halving the pasta.

  • 4 scallions, chopped far down into the green
  • 1 medium carrot, diced small
  • [optional 3 peeled tomatoes, diced small]
  • 4 Tablespoons oil
  • 2 Tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika
  • 5 cups water
  •  2/3 pound ground meat
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika
  • 4 Tablespoons raw rice
  • 1 egg white (reserve yolk for final assembly)
  • flour for coating meatballs
  • [2 or 1 or no nests of angel hair pasta]
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 egg (plus the reserved egg yolk)
  • 1 cup flat parsley, chopped
  • lemon juice and black pepper, to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, stir in the scallions, carrots, and salt, then the 2 Tablespoons water.  Cook until the carrots are soft, about 3 minutes.  [If you use tomatoes, you do not need to add the water.]   Stir in the paprika and let it release its flavor into the fat.  Add 5 cups water and bring to a boil

Make the meatballs by mixing well the meat, salt, paprika, rice, and egg white. Pinch off small pieces, roll into balls, and coat with flour, lining the meatballs up on a plate.  When the water is boiling, add the meatballs, one by one; bring back to a boil, then reduce heat to low, partially cover, and cook for 20 minutes.  [If you using the pasta, add 5 minutes before the meatballs are done.]

At this point, you can turn off the heat, cover, and leave for final assembly later.

When ready to serve, beat the yogurt in a bowl and whisk in the eggs.    Reheat the soup, if it has cooled, and stir a quarter cup of the hot liquid into the yogurt–then a half cup–then stir the yogurt mixture back into the soup.  This “zastroika” method keeps the eggs from getting stringy and makes a lovely consistency.  Keep the soup on low.  Stir in the black pepper, salt to taste, and the chopped parsley.  You may stir in the lemon juice at the end or serve a wedge of lemon with each serving.  Garnish each bowl with chopped scallions.

April 6, 2014

What the World Needs Now Is Soup, Sweet Soup

Filed under: History and culture,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 7:38 pm


Almost 5 years since my last post on Halloween 2009. Five years!  A lot of soup under the bridge…many European, African, and Latin American adventures under my belt…relocating from Paris back to Washington, DC…and just now retiring from the day job (!) to what I hope will be a new era for soupsong.

The plan?  Nothing less than ditching the old format of and a lot of its content to create Soupedia, a compendium of traditional soup recipes from all time periods and cultures that I hope will largely flow into the site from soup lovers around the world.  And fast, before the globalization of food and custom make us forget these storied traditions.

It’s going to be a long haul, folks, as I figure out 21st century tools and laboriously reprogram the content.  But along the way I hope to tease and tempt you on this blog with stories and recipes I have collected during my long absence.  And what better way to start, now that I’m back in the poisonous politics of Washington, DC,  than with an 18th century American crab soup from the hand of our first First Lady Martha Washington?

Appropriately, I adapted a recipe found in Washington insider Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers:  The Women Who Raised Our Nation, credited to Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks’ 1968 book of presidential recipes.  It is light and lemony but rich – and heady with a whiff of sherry to stimulate the appetite.  Need I say it?  PERFECT for these cool spring days.  Don’t you wish you had a cup right this minute?


  • 3 eggs, hardboiled
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • salt and white pepper to taste
  • 1 cup crabmeat (ideally lump Chesapeake crab, but all crab is good in this)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • Garnish: strips of lemon rind and parsley

Mash the hardboiled eggs and grated lemon rind together and reserve.  Melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat, whisk in the flour and blend for a minute or two.  Slowly whisk in the milk, turning up the heat to medium, and bring to a boil.  Whisk in the egg/rind and cook gently for 5 minute to thicken.  Season with salt and white pepper to taste.  Right before serving, stir in the heavy cream and crabmeat and bring just to a boil.  Remove from heat, add the sherry, and serve immediately.  Garnish each bowl with a curl of lemon rind and a parsley leaf.

October 31, 2009

Nobody spooks like the English

Filed under: History and culture,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 5:28 pm
British Museum sphinx considers Halloween activities

British Museum sphinx considering Halloween activities

Prepackaged scariness

Prepackaged scariness

No one is a bigger fan of Halloween than me. The creepiness of its very concept…the intoxification of fear…the cloying sweetness of the treats and the nastiness of the tricks. Who could doubt that it’s an English holiday?

Even so, I was pretty surprised to find the pictured soup in all the London Tesco supermarkets last weekend. “Witches Brew” indeed–rather a pumpkin and tomato puree with bits of blackeyed peas and veggies floating in it.

Want a soup that’s a little more frightening? Try Spooky Soup and a Story from my old website. Or perhaps you prefer Teeny Tiny Graveyard Soup. Nothing like Halloween soup to put a chill on your bones.

Wishing you goblins of fun, wherever you are.

October 27, 2009

Will the real French onion soup please stand up?

Filed under: History and culture,Restaurant review,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 5:08 pm
Me, knocking on heaven\'s door

Me, knocking on heaven's door

A soup of a different color

A soup of a different color

Who knew that REAL French onion soup began its life in Lyon? So declared lyonnais Bernard Chaléat, friend of Catherine (pictured), before we ever arrived: “La soupe à l’oignon est d’origine lyonnaise!”

Me, I would have put money on its origin in Paris, old standby that its soupe à l’oignon has been historically at Les Halles and Montmartre. And I would have lost.

Come south with me from Paris to Lyon, at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers–a town founded as a Roman military colony of Lugdunum in 43 BCE, then rising to prominence from its easy position on major trading routes. The town nearly backrupted itself buying the gorgeous silks that came over the silk road from China–to the point that in 1436 Louis XI declared the town should make its own silk…and in 1536, Francois I gave Lyon the French monopoly. By the 1750s Lyon had become the silk-weaving capital of Europe.

What does all this have to do with onion soup? In fact, onion soup had everything to do with Lyon’s masses of overworked/underpaid canuts (silk workers). They worked 18 hours a day; they needed hot, rich, cheap food. Voila, onion soup poured over stale bread and a little cheese thrown on top. Probably it started as a way to flavor and enrich the broth of traditional pot-au-feu–and to use up stale bread. Then it became a tradition–and was traditionally served as the last course (if the meal was lucky enough to have several courses) to fill up and warm the bellies of workers on their way back to the looms.

Crazy, though, that this simple beginning blossomed into today’s “gratinée lyonnaise” that insists on the addition of egg yolks and…port! Don’t ask me how a red fortified wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal found its way into this soup. In any case, you can see the upshot in the picture, under Catherine’s smiling face at Les Fines Gueules bouchon in the St. Jean district of Lyon. And you should taste it too. Despite my doubts, it’s marvelous. The chopped onions pretty much dissolve into browned richness; the egg yolks make it silky; and the port, at the end, envelopes you in heady fragrance.

Gratinée lyonnaise (for 4)

  • 2 Tablespoons butter; 2 Tablespoons oil
  • 4 medium onions, chopped
  • 6 cups beef stock (ideally, broth from your pot-au-feu)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2-3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup red port, medium dry
  • stale sliced French bread, toasted in a slow oven until crisp through
  • 1/2-1 cup grated Comté cheese (Gruyére or Swiss is also fine, though Comté is more local to the area)

Heat the butter and oil over medium heat, toss in the onions, and sauté, stirring, for a few minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let cook until the onions have browned on the bottom. Stir the browned bits through the onion, then pour in the stock, taste for seasoning, and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for at least 30 minutes. The onions should have mostly melted away.

Toast the stale French bread slices. Grate the cheese. Have the egg yolks and port handy.

When ready to serve, beat the egg yolks into the port and stir into the simmering pot. Let thicken and get silky for about 5 minutes. Place the toasted croutons into flat serving plates. Ladle the soup on top. Sprinkle each serving with as much or as little cheese as you like–but err on the light side. Such a relief to not be confronted with the Parisian throat-choking plate of cheese on top. You can serve the soup immediately or run the plates under the broiler for a quick crust.

As a last note, many thanks to Bernard and Anne Chaléat, who gave Catherine and me such an extraordinary tour of the city and its Roman aqueduct, then happily fed us in their beautiful home–all the best food of Lyon, culinary capital of France.

Finally, do I recommend Les Fines Gueules, founded by Franck Perrin and Ludovic Rouviere in 2002? Certainement! Lovely atmosphere and excellent food.
69005 LYON 05
Téléphone : 04 78 28 99 14

October 20, 2009

“He had often eaten oysters, but had never had enough.”

Filed under: History and culture,Ingredient,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 8:04 pm
Oysters or die, if you please.

Oysters or die, if you please.

"Never had enough"

"Never had enough"

This silly drawing is from “Etiquette,” one of W. S. Gilbert’s “Bab Ballads,” which recounts the plight of two proper but very shipwrecked Englishmen. Alas, they have not been properly introduced, so they can not exchange a word and must resolutely stay on their own side of a tiny island. Peter Gray lives on the oyster side of the island, though he hates oysters; instead, “turtle and his mother were the only things he loved.” Somers lives on the turtle side of the island, though he hates turtle meat. And, tragedy!, “he had often eaten oysters, but had never had enough.” Starvation looms…no way around the proprieties…the end is near…then suddenly…. Well, it’s complicated. I encourage you to read “Etiquette” for some rather unexpected life lessons.

Lesson #1, of course: let nothing stand in the way of eating oysters. And like it or not, last week’s homage to oyster soup was father to this week’s lesson on l’ostréiculture–oysters in France.


  • When Julius Caesar and his legions of Romans discovered Ostrea edulis, the flat, “plated” European oyster, along the 2000 miles of French coastline, they flipped. But when these became society’s darlings in the 19th century, the plated oyster virtually disappeared from overfishing and disease. Oh, they are SUCH a treat…and so expensive. I buy the biggest ONE I can find every Saturday I’m in town (the meat doesn’t get tougher with age, just bigger) and look forward to eating it all day long.
  • In 1868, story goes, the good ship Le Morlaisien ran into a storm on the way to England with a cargo of live Portugaise oysters, Crassostrea angulata, and took refuge in the Gironde estuary. Its cargo was heavy, rotting, stank–the captain finally got permission to dump them overboard…where they promptly revived and took over the place. These yummy “cup” oysters, originally brought from Asia by Portuguese traders, turned France for a second time into oyster paradise.
  • Alas, in the 1960s, disease struck both Portuguese and European oysters along the French coast–and France was once again bereft of oysters. Enter the “creuse” Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, imported from Japan and from British Columbia and carefully introduced and cultivated. The comeback was quick, and today l’ostréiculture is a dazzling success once again. According to expert John McCabe, some 3,400 French oyster growers produced an estimated 518 million Euros in sales in 2005.

THE OYSTERS: 7 regions–same mostly creuse oyster, all distinctively different.

  1. Normandy, from Belgium to Mont Saint Michel along the English channel: the little niche areas of cultivation here produce a crisp, refreshing, and salty oyster. Huître spéciale d’Isigny is a particular hottie.
  2. Northern Brittany, from Mont Saint Michel to Brest along the English channel: think darling and remote little Cancale where Matisse painted and where I bought my little oyster knife, which I’ve used on every oyster since 1994. It is a haven for fresh and sparkling creuses; rich and many-layered plates; and giant wild ones (sauvages), which grow very large indeed.
  3. Southern Brittany, from the Bay of Douarnenez to the Loire River on the Atlantic Ocean: okay, we’ve turn the western corner of France south onto the straight Atlantic coast, but cultivation here is complex, with bays, rivers, and streams serving for beds. Take Belon oysters. *sigh* Oh yes, let’s take them all. These are plate oysters that are coddled and overfed in the brackish waters of the Belon river until they are shamefully plump and exotically tasty. Farther south, creuse oysters undergo similar coddling in phyto-plankton-rich seas: they turn green and have a hazelnut taste. Others whose beds stick far out into the Atlantic are fresh and salty, like kissing the sea on the lips.
  4. West Central France, from the Loire to the Charentes river on the Atlantic: Now we have entered the land of Claires cultivation–where oysters are moved from their seabeds into special basins for affinage, getting clean, getting fatter, gaining depth of flavor. Think Ile de Ré, La Rochelle, and Fouras.
  5. Marennes-Oléron, from the Charentes to the Gironde river on the Atlantic: This area takes affinage to a whole new place. This is where young oysters are moved from the sea to medieval salt basins that have been converted to shallow pools and flooded with nutritious waters. Here the oysters cleanse themselves of mud and sand; they fatten; they enrich themselves; they even learn how to keep their shells shut, so they stay alive longer in the marketplace…. It’s in these pools that the fresh, salty taste of ocean oysters turn sweet, aromatic, and rich. It’s here too that emerald green oysters are produced on a Blue navicula phyto-plankton diet. These are oysters for chewing.
  6. Arcachon, from the Gironde to Spain on the Atlantic coast: More of the same in terms of technique–the claire cultivation–but of both Japanese creuse oysters AND European plate oysters. Arcachon is equally important in producing baby oysters–which none of the other regions are able to do. Any oysters harvested in May and June will be milky, filled with either sperm or eggs, in the millions.
  7. French Mediterranean, just in the Languedoc region: unlikely and always in danger of too-high temperatures and not enough tidal action, Bassin de Thau, a lake between Bezier and Monpellier, cultivates absolutely scrumptious creuse and plate oysters–quite different in taste from their French brethren. P.S. Corsica, part of the French state, is also a cultivator of oysters, though I have never seen any in French markets.

SO, if all this information has made you lust after oysters as much as me, run to the store to buy some, as I plan to do, then make the recipe below–another one adapted from Louis Anne Rothert’s Soups of France, this one from Marennes-Oléron at Charentes. She calls it Les Trois Glorieuses des Charentes” as it combines 3 of the 4 specialties of Charentes: Marennes oysters, the aperitif Pineau des Charentes, butter, and cognac.

8-10 small oysters (or 3-4 big ones cut in chunks), juice reserved
1 Tablespoon butter
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup oyster juice (add fish stock or clam juice if needed)
1/2 cup heavy cream
sprinkling of white pepper
garnish: 1 Tablespoon Pineau des Charentes, minced parsley, a few thin circles of leek

Sauté the shallots in the butter over low heat, then add the garlic and stir in for a few minutes. Add the oyster juice and cook down on low heat for 5 minutes. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. When ready to serve, add the oysters and remove from the heat after 10 seconds or so, when you see the edges curl. Taste for seasoning–you probably won’t need salt if your oysters are fresh, but a little grind of white pepper is good. Ladle into your soup plate, garnish with the parsley and leeks, and sprinkle the Pineau over the top.

Dig in–you deserve it!

Please note: most of my information came straight from John McCabe’s superb Oysters.US.

October 8, 2009

‘Tis the season…

Filed under: Cookbook review,History and culture,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 9:47 pm
Dedicated to Traditional French Soups

Dedicated to Traditional French Soups

Soupe Locmariaquer

Soupe Locmariaquer

I woke up this morning thinking about soup. Still too early for Paris to turn on the heat so, with all my casement windows open, I was double wrapped in down and still had freezing feet. Another sign of the season — old friends from early days are checking in. All of it feels good, heading into days of kicking through horsechestnut leaves after work, anticipating the warmth and goodness of the soup kettle just steps away.

Do you know this book? Lois Anne Rothert published The Soups of France in 2002. It’s a beauty. Forget about haute cuisine, formal restaurant service, and, in the words of 19th century gourmand Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, that “soup is to dinner what the portico or the peristyle is to an edifice. That is to say, not only is it the first part, but it should be conceived in such a way as to give an exact idea of the feast, very nearly as the overture to an opera should announce the quality of the whole work.”

Forget all that. In this book, soup IS the edifice; it IS the feast. Rothert focuses specifically on “big” meal-in-a-pot soups that are tied to specific Franch regions. Soupe au Pistou from Provence. Garbure from South West France. Matelote from Normandie and the Loire. Cotriade from Brittany. She says that, at this point in time, her book is “an essential work of safekeeping.” And it’s true: I rarely find these soups on a menu anywhere in France. They are disappearing. And you know I’ve been looking.

Likewise, Lois Rothert herself is hard to track down. She permits a small smiling picture of herself on the flyleaf of the book, proudly wearing her age with frazzled hair, oversized glasses, and an open collared jeans shirt–but is otherwise mostly invisible in the book and on the web. Fluent in French; educated at La Varenne; restauranteuse for 7 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana; mother of 4 children; winters in Indiana and summers outside Seattle in Cle Elum–that’s about it. But she knows France, knows food, and has produced a book that sings. Just look at that bowl of Soupe Locmariaquer, fat with oysters and smoked ham, from Brittany. I’ve adapted the grandmother’s recipe that she sweet-talked from the owner of the Hotel L’Escale at tiny Locmariaquer. This version is much simpler–basically the classic French potato soup that every housewife used to have on the burner…then stuffed with fresh oysters and crisp lardons right before serving.

Soupe Locmariaquer: Soupe Bonne Femme with Oysters and Crisp Ham Bits (for 6)

1 Tablespoon butter
4 leeks, cleaned and washed, then sliced (up into the green) into a 1/3-inch dice (1 and 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup diced onion
4-5 potatoes, peeled and diced (3 cups)
6 cups hot milk
sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, and a half bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoons butter
1/4 pound lardons (or thick bacon), cut into 1-inch pieces
24 medium-sized oysters (at least! This would be a measly 4 per bowl)
2 Tablespoons butter enrichment
Garnish: thinly sliced leeks and toasted croutes

Heat 1 T. butter in a saucepan over medium low heat, stir in the leeks and onions, and sweat slowly, covered, until they are soft, but not brown. Add the potatoes and hot milk with the salt and herbs, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes, covered, until the potatoes are soft.

While the soup is cooking, saute the lardons/bacon in a Tablespoon of butter over medium heat until the fat has rendered. Drain on paper towels and reserve.

Shuck the oysters, carefully reserving the juice and strain through cheese cloth if necessary.

When the soup is done, remove the herbs and add the oyster liquor and 2 Tablespoons of butter enrichment. Taste to see if it needs salt–it may well not, since the oyster juice is salty–and maybe grind some white pepper into it. Mash the soup to thicken it with the potatoes, without completely creaming it. It should be lumpy.

When ready to serve, slide the oysters into the simmering broth (15 or so seconds is enough to plump them). Stir in the crisp ham bits. Ladle into bowls and top with thinly sliced leeks and croutons on the side.

Bottom line: if you want to grasp French foodways and see right into the heart of the French stomach, run don’t walk to your local online used bookstore. Lois Rothert’s The Soups of France is pricey, but all treasures are.

October 2, 2009

Collaborating, etc., in Vichy, France

vichy broomheads

vichy broomheads

soupe d'avocat froide au citron vert, brunoise de concombre

soupe d'avocat froide au citron vert, brunoise de concombre

As I stepped off my train in Vichy’s exquisite station, I had all sorts of pre-conceptions. Yes, yes, I would find the perfect building or monument to capture the shame of Pétain’s collaborationist government with the 3rd Reich…and somehow it would also capture the long history of aristocratic pleasuring at Vichy’s thermal springs. And, oh yes, I would dine in elegance, somewhere, on native son Louis Diat’s vichyssoise and capture that on film for you too.

Oh well.

Please know that Vichy is an extraordinary town–a little down at the heels, maybe, despite the gilding, the eye-popping statuary, the exotic moorish architecture, the parks and river walks. But still dedicated to pleasure, as it has been since Emperor Napoleon III took its cool, metallic and also hot, stinky waters in the 1860s for his health. Horseracing, casinos, golf, casinos, theater, casinos, opera, casinos, and temples to health and beauty that clothe then divest you of impossibly thick white terry robes between your massages, baths, languid slumps in the hammam, you get the picture.

I had only two commitments: 1. Meeting foodie friend Catherine for a sensational lunch at Brasserie du Casino on Sunday. 2. Finding a local soup that would set your hair on fire, preferably a creation of chef Diat. First stop on Saturday morning, Brasserie du Casino–to establish that I would find a great soup there to order next day. Absolument non. There it was again–the only offering that same old bland gaspacho that is everywhere. From that point on, it was Experience the Town and Find a Soup, all day long.

How about in the oldest part of town, past Mme. de Sévigné’s house, where Pétain held his cabinet meetings, and twisting down from the heights on narrow streets to the river and the elegant pavilion housing the source of Celestin waters? Nope. Lots of restos, none served soup.

How about along the formal Parc des Sources, bristling with the priciest boutiques and most expensive restaurants? Um, no. No soup.

The center of town, cachinking from the casinos and oompah-pahing from the bandstand? Non.

Surely at the Grand Marché, a stadium of over a hundred food markets of every stripe? Rien.

In the end, the giant Les Quatre Chemins shopping center/casino complex to the north of town saved me: Soupe d’avocat froide au citron vert, brunoise de concombre in its cool panoramic restaurant just a winding staircase up from the heated, neonized casino. You can see how good it was. Thick and creamy; mild (of course, it’s French) with only a hint of lime and tarragon; tiny chunks of cucumber and sweet red pepper, a drizzle of fruity olive oil. And, you know, there it was: a 21st century version of Diat’s vichyssoise–his classic cold leek/potato soup whipped with avocado and sweetly garnished. Make it yourself from my recipe Colombian Avocado Vichyssoise .

So, a perfect and very full vacation in less than 2 days. And if I hadn’t been scouring the town for a good soup, I never would have stumbled into this pictured evidence of local wedding customs. Is it just me, or is this custom a little gender bending?

September 26, 2009

cuckoo for coco de Paimpol

Filed under: History and culture,Ingredient,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 10:41 am
Shelled cocos with their pods

Shelled cocos with their pods

Breton pumpkin soup with cocos

Breton pumpkin soup with cocos

“Coco de Paimpol”? Suddenly these big speckly pods were all over local French markets. I’d never seen beans like them before–soft yellow pods marbled with violet arabesques–and the name was crazy: coconuts from a remote village in the northwest of France??? Of course, I bought them immediately.

Thank goodness for impulses.

Shelled, they are big, fat, beautiful, white beans. Cooked, they are bigger and fatter, exquisitely tender, even melting, and nutty in taste. They’re only sold in the pod or frozen, never dried. They don’t disintegrate, no matter low long you cook them, but their skin is so thin that they pop when your teeth just graze them. Hard to beat THAT for taste sensation. And, indeed, like the best French wines and cheeses, these beans have earned the covetted AOC rating.

What a story: The time: the 1920s. The place: South America. The drama: a young, homesick Breton sailor finds these gorgeous new-world beans in a port of call and brings back a handful to plant in his native soil, at La Pointe de l’Arcouest in the Trégor-Goëlo region of Brittany. Like young Jack of the Beanstalk’s, they practically exploded out of the ground. That particular bean and that particular microclimate turned out to be a perfect match–and they quickly spread to all the local gardens in town. Fateful magic? I think so. In the dark days of heavy World World II bombing and privation, instead of starving…it was cocos for breakfast, cocos for lunch, and cocos for dinner for the good people of Trégor-Goëlo.

But cocos came into their own in postwar France when their sheer abundance made them into a cash crop. And they hit their gourmandise stride in 1998 when they achieved that Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) certification–a rarity among beans. What makes them AOC? They’re only planted in Trégor-Goëlo, and only at a certain density and only with certain fertilizer. Perhaps above all, they’re only harvested BY HAND because of the fragility of the pods, then briefly stored and rushed to market strictly by the rules.

And here is where France has so much fun with its love of fine food. Some 3000 plumeurs flock into Trégor-Goëlo in July for a lot of harvesting and a lot of partying during the summer. There are competitions in picking, competitions in shelling and recipes, and a hotly contested election for Best Plumeur of the Year.

In the spirit of this coco phenomenon, I offer you one of the recipes from Prince de Bretagne itself: Soupe potiron coco de Paimpol for 4 people:

  • 1 cup cocos, cooked in unsalted water with a bay leaf and onion pierced with a clove for 35 minutes…or fully cooked second-best white beans of your choice
  • 1 pound of pumpkin or other orange squash, peeled and cubed and steamed for about 20 minutes–then pureed and mixed with 1 cup heavy cream (or yoghurt if you’re watching calories). Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

At this point you only have to assemble the soup. Ladle the pumpkin soup equally into 4 bowls. Drain the heated cocos or beans and spoon into the center of each bowl. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and pepper, and serve piping hot. And what’s that next to my bowl? Oh that Woodrow Wilson Market in Paris–fresh, fat chanterelle mushrooms quickly sauteed in butter. Delicious!

I know it’s cruel to tease those of you not able to get these cutie cocos, but the recipe is nice for all that, with those second-best beans of your choice.

One last issue: What ABOUT that name–why “coconuts”? The controversy rages, of course, as it always does in France when food is concerned. But why not the easy vernacular explanation–”coco” being one’s “little sweetie pie”? Plump and melting and a little nutty…sounds like a little darling from Paimpol to me.

September 18, 2009

Un bouillon de poule revives the Saint of the Day

Filed under: History and culture,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 4:54 pm

Roland de Medici

Bouillon for the Blessed

Bouillon for the Blessed

There’s no way around it, I am hooked on Saint Du Jour.

“The Saint of the Day” appears as a small daily column in the free Paris metro newsrag, Direct Matin Plus–and is just short enough and easy enough for me to read in transit between Place Victor Hugo and Etoile metro stops on my way to work. Not a bad way to start the day, in fact, pondering these hagiographic tales of virtue and martyrdom.

Take as an example this past Tuesday, September 15, dedicated to Bienheureux Roland (that is, “Blessed” Roland de Medici, who is one step up from “Venerable” and one step short of “Saint” in the canonization process):

“In 1386, in the north of Italy, some hunters discovered our poor hero, more dead than alive, dressed only in an old goat skin, shells, and foliage, and dying of hunger…. It was Roland de Medici who, 30 years earlier, had made a vow to retreat alone to the forest. Nourishing himself only with grasses and wild fruits, he passed the hours in meditation, standing on one leg. He said that he saw the face of Jesus in the sun during his prayers. When Princess Pallavicini heard about this, she sent him her confessor, who, after listening to Roland for 2 hours, declared that after so many years of wandering and of a solitary life, Roland was ‘pure of all sin, even those of omission.’ The confessor took him under his care–AND MADE HIM A BOUILLON OF HEN TO DRINK THAT PROLONGED HIS LIFE FOR 26 DAYS. Roland only died on September 15 when he saw St. Michael and some angels had arrived to conduct him to paradise.”

Other sources elaborate: Born in Florence, he was the scion of the famous de Medici family who renounced his inheritance and appeared one day, dressed in black, in the forests of Parma. Only when his clothes rotted away did he substitute the goatskin. Which is how the Princess found him during that day of hunting, flat on his back in rotting leaves and at the point of death. He refused by signs to go to her castle and only agreed to break his lifetime vow of silence to the Carmelite confessor who was administering last sacraments.

Forgive me, but I can’t help but note that the miracle of chicken soup is part of this story. I stopped at the store on the way home and bought a poule. I cut it up and chopped the bones. I put it in a pot of ice cold water with some fresh-pulled little onions and greens and, at a snail’s pace, brought it to a simmer over low heat, to extract every morsel of goodness. I let it bubble for 6 hours. To make an appropriate offering to this pious man, I meant to clarify the broth when it was done–so that, as in Louis XIV’s commission to his cooks, I could “see my reflection in it.”

Voila! In the end, the broth was so pure and so concentrated that I only had to skim the fat and pour it into a bowl. Those are my kitchen drapes in the reflection…but I think they look properly inspirational. You just can’t beat chicken soup. If St. Michael and the angels hadn’t shown up, Bienheureux Roland might still be alive today.

September 11, 2009

Bon Baiser de Bruges

Filed under: History and culture,Soup,soup recipes — pat @ 5:59 pm
Brugesiastic stuff

Brugesiastic stuff

Waterzooie part II

Waterzooie part II

Don’t you just want to slap yourself when you go to a cool place and forget your camera? That would be me this weekend on a trip to Bruges, a medieval Flemish city caught and preserved mostly in the 14th century. Thus my photos, when I got back, of things I bought there (chocolate, tapestry pillow, 18th century chimney tile of the Bruges lion) and what I ate there (a perfect facsimile, if I do say so myself).

Am I obsessed with the Flemish soup Waterzooie? Maybe. At least as far as getting it right. I wrote earlier of my very doubtful Lobster Waterzooie in Brussels and couldn’t wait to get back to Belgium to make a correction. Except I forgot to take the camera. *sigh* But this really IS exactly like the bowl I had at Sint Joris (St. George) Brasserie on Markt Square, except with the local Bruges beer instead of this “gloriously bronze” Westmalle Triple that I brought back to Paris with me.

And what I love about this particular Waterzooie is that it is not only delicious and authentic but also totally easy, much easier than my original recipe at Try this per person:

  • 1 chicken thigh and 1 chicken drumstick
  • 1-inch green part of leek, cleaned and chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup water or chicken stock
  • 4-5 small waxy potatoes, peeled
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon flour; salt and white pepper to taste
  • 1-inch peeled carrot, grated
  • garnish: parsley, finely minced

Put the chicken pieces, leeks, garlic, and potatoes in a pot, add the stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover tightly, and poach for an hour–until the chicken is tender but not falling off the bone. Remove the chicken pieces and potatoes, whisk in the flour and seasonings over medium heat until thick, then whisk in the cream and grated carrots. Remove the skin from the chicken pieces, add the chicken and potatoes back into the pot, and let simmer for 10 minutes. In each bowl, arrange one thigh and one drumstick and surround with potatoes, pour the sauce over each bowl, then sprinkle with parsley. How easy is that? Serve with knife, fork, and soupspoon–and don’t forget the Belgian beer.

But my personal recommendation is to go to Bruges, and the sooner the better, to experience it in its own setting. What a city! If you have short pockets and low standards, you can stay in a hostel like the Hotel Lybeer for 27 euros, which includes a great breakfast in a crystal chandeliered common room, a discount card for all city events, and Bruges-by-Day/Bruges-by-Night maps “made by locals” that is hilarious and spot-on for what you should and should not do. But, eek, remember to take a towel for that shower down the hall….

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