"Every country possesses, it seems, the sort of cuisine it deserves, which is to say the sort of cuisine it is appreciative enough to want. I used to think that the notoriously bad cooking of the English was an example to the contrary, and that the English cook the way they do because, through sheer technical deficiency, they had not been able to master the art of cooking. I have discovered to my stupefaction that the English cook that way because that is the way they like it."
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Surprising English Soups
(e-SoupSong 47: April 1, 2004)
I'd gone to London on a lark last month and was killing time in Earl's Court, waiting for a friend and wandering around in local grocery shops looking at the food. Not the best way to explore the vagaries of English soup, but still revealing:
Coming myself from a decidedly English background, I wondered why. And, while I was at it, I wondered why on earth it had taken me so long to take a close look at English food and English soups.
OF COURSE I STARTED OUT BY READING A LOT OF BOOKS AND COOKING A LOT OF SOUPS.
Windsor soup, for example--the one reputed to have built the empire; the oh-so-fashionable soup in Victorian and Edwardian times; the one served daily, until recently, on the dining cars of British railways. Such rich ingredients and so savory--root vegetables sweated slowly in butter, shin of beef, lamb, "faggot of herbs," all topped off with a splash of fragrant Madeira. And yet! And yet in every single recipe the penultimate step was "rub the meat, vegetables, and broth through a sieve or blend in a liquidiser."
I thought to myself, no way--it will look like mud and have a gagging consistency.
So I divided the soup and, with trepidation, liquidized one half of it. Yep. It looked like mud and had a gagging consistency. Good flavor, yes, but even Madeira couldn't make me eat the whole bowl.
So let's try vegetable, I thought to myself, and shoot high. I bypassed the hundreds of simple vegetable soup recipes--always thickened with flour, always pureed, always made "fancy" by adding a tot of "double cream"--til I found the mysterious Saxe-Coburg soup. A royal soup. Some say it was created for Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, who came from Saxe-Coburg and doted on Brussel sprouts. Others say no, it was named for the Queen's oldest son who in 1901 became the short-lived Edward VII of the House of Saxe-Coburg.
The recipe read well: tiny chopped brussel sprouts, onion, and bits of smoky ham sweated slowly in butter, then simmered in a rich milky broth. Served with a splash of sherry and with traditional "sippets"--tiny cubes of toast (not to be confused with the "fairy toast" garnish, which is tiny slices of toast).
But then the kicker: "rub through a sieve or blend in a liquidiser."
Okay, not so repulsive as Windsor soup, but still losing all that textural interest and becoming quite green. Indeed, less elegant versions--called simply 'Brussels sprout soup" in Mrs. Beeton's Cookery and Household Management and in wartime cookbooks--encourage the use of "green colouring, if needed."
Okay, enough with traditional soups, I said. Let's find the fancy stuff; let's look at that very English Fabulous Foods for People You Love. Oh dear. Banana vichyssoise and pink velvet soup (the latter with beets, catsup, bovril, sour cream, and cream cheese).
That did it. Why, I ask myself, have no truly great traditional English soups evolved out of a land of great natural resources and a cool climate? Why such sameness--to the point that the intrepid Mrs. Beeton was able to categorize English soups in 1861 into, effectively, just 3 soups: 1) broths/consommes, 2) purees (meat, fish, vegetable, and bean) and 3) thickened soups (meat, fish, vegetable, and bean)--even with one-size-fits-all master formulas. Vegetable puree (soup #2), for example, which you'll notice is also thickened (soup #3):
I ask you too: why so bland? why so thick and smooth? why so labor intensive? and why have Mrs. Beeton's soups lasted unchanged for nearly 150 years?
IN FACT, THERE'S HISTORY TO IT.
Let's start at the beginning, back in 6500 BCE, when England chunked off from the Europe mainland to become an island. The locals then were subsisting on wild plantlife, with fish, game, and birds as supplements. Pretty slim pickings. Then Neolithic settlers sailed to the island (3500 BCE) bearing sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle and knowledge of how to farm...and they prospered. Celts arrived in 8 BCE, bringing hens, ducks, and geese, planting grain, mining tin, making cheese, brewing beer and mead, preserving food in salt, and exporting beef and wheat to the Continent--which, of course, ended by drawing attention to the place.
In no time at all, Romans arrived, sniffing out the tin and wheat. They occupied England for nearly 500 years, along the way growing peaches, apricots, figs, and almonds; bringing animal husbandry to a high point; cultivating shellfish; introducing barley and rye, spices, herbs, Mediterranean vegetables, and egg cookery. Their tables groaned with the refinements of the empire. And yet, after they left to defend mother Rome against barbarian invaders in 400 AD, all these advances were lost--lost except for some plants they had planted and the vinegar and Worcestershire fish sauce they had obsessively used to sauce their dishes.
Why lost? Because fierce Picts, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, and Danes swooped into the vacuum and threw culinary refinement to the winds. All those penned docile animals ran away and died in the forest; olive oil and spices were used up and not replaced; fruit trees and gardens died away. The general population persevered, as it always had, on daily pottage--a stew of cereal grains with leaves and herbs and seeds. Highliving invaders, now Christianized, ate huge fish and eel pies on fast days and 3 courses of meat whenever the Church permitted.
It wasn't til the Norman invasion of 1066 that eyes and stomachs were again raised to consider the pleasures of the table. Normans brought their French apples and other glorious fruits back to plant in orchards. They drew on existing English monastery gardens for herbs and vegetables. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land reintroduced all the fabled spices and pomegranates from the Mediterranean world, plus added brand-new sugar that had been discovered growing on the plains of Tripoli. If you were rich or titled or a bishop, you could eat well...and you tended to focus on that, encouraging trade of knowledge and foodstuffs with other nations. If you were a farmer or a townsman, you had to ride out a series of famines and the Black Death, but your lot improved too, into a solid diet of hearty plain food: roasts and boiled meats, thick puddings, thick soups, pies, breads and oatcakes, rashers of bacon, eggs, cheese, beans and peas, onions and ale.
And then the one-two punch.
And so it remains a cuisine that loves its essentially 17th century foods, serving such rough fare in refined ways on exquisite china and in prescribed courses: roasts and boiled meats, thick puddings, thick soups, pies, breads and oatcakes, rashers of bacon, eggs, cheese, beans and peas, onions and ale. One 18th century innovation, of course: in poet William Cowper's immortal words, "Tea, the cups that cheer but not inebriate."
But what about those thick soups? Back to my original question: Why have no truly great traditional English soups evolved out of a land of great natural resources and a cool climate? Mrs. Beeton ruefully suggests that fine soups are neglected because of "the deeply rooted association of soup with poverty...." W. H. Auden argues childhood conditioning: "who but an Englishman can know the delights of stone-cold leathery toast for breakfast, or the wonders of 'Dead Man's Leg'?" Roy Andries de Groot presses the case for tradition: "the great British tradition that the food is going to be so bad that you must completely hide all its flavors...."
I'd like to leave the last word to the great food encyclopaedist Waverley Root: "Every country possesses, it seems, the sort of cuisine it deserves, which is to say the sort of cuisine it is appreciative enough to want. I used to think that the notoriously bad cooking of the English was an example to the contrary, and that the English cook the way they do because, through sheer technical deficiency, they had not been able to master the art of cooking. I have discovered to my stupefaction that the English cook that way because that is the way they like it."
Come on now, be brave--try these two on for size: yeoman Cheshire cheese soup and a spectacularly elegant version of Palestine soup, both dating back to 17th century recipes.
Comfort soup times a thousand--a curious mix of soup and hot cereal enlivened by one of the all-time great English cheeses. Soft on the palate and eyes: white on white, with leeks, potatoes, and oatmeal, sparkled with grated carrots and pinked with cheese. It's really a honey. Serve hot to 8 for breakfast, lunch, pub fare, or a light supper.
In a large saucepan, bring the stock to a boil. Scrape in the potatoes and leeks, salt and pepper to taste, then lower heat to a simmer, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Scrape in the grated carrots and oatmeal, stir, then cover and simmer for 15 more minutes. When ready to serve, stir in the cheese, cover to let melt for a few minutes, then stir and ladle into bowls. Top each bowl with a sprinkling of fresh leek circles.
* * *
Delicate, complex, and really quite spectacular as a launch to a great luncheon or dinner. It's a pale green silken soup, delicately flavored, crested with dollops of pink and piquant whipped cream, and sprinkled with crushed toasted hazelnuts. This confection goes best in the classic "cream soup cup," double-handled or no-handled and with saucer, a paperthin slice of lemon hung over its lip. Serve hot to 8 as a first course.
Right from the start you have to know that these sunchokes turn dark the minute they're peeled, so you must be quick in peeling, then plunge them into the cold vinegar water til you're ready to use them. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Stir in the onions and celery, then quickly slice the peeled chokes into the pot and stir to coat. Cover the pot and sweat the vegetables over low heat for 10 minutes, being sure not to brown them. Pour in the stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, until the chokes are tender. Puree the soup, solids first, then return to the pot. Pour in the milk, salt and pepper to taste, and return to a simmer. You can hold at this point until you are close to serving the soup. Prepare the garnishes.
When you're ready to serve, have the soup at a simmer. Whisk the heavy cream with the egg yolks, then whisk into the soup, heating through but being careful not to boil. Ladle the thickened soup into the bowls, place dollops of the spiced whipped cream on top of each and sprinkle with the toasted hazelnut bits. Hang a sliced lemon round on the lip of each bowl and serve immediately.
Other traditional English soups posted on soupsong.com? Lots of them, including that amazing Windsor soup...where YOU can make the call: to beat or not to beat, that is the question. Go to the International soup page at www.soupsong.com/iinterna.html.
Resources: Adrian Bailey's The Cooking of the British Isles, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson's The Victorian Cookbook, Mrs. Isabelle Beeton's Family Cookery, Maggie Black's The Medieval Cookbook, Lizzie Boyd's British Cookery, The Cambridge World History of Food, Caroline Conran's English Country Cooking at its Best, Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food, Jane Garmey's Great British Cooking: A Well Kept Secret, Good Housekeeping Institute's Book of Soups, Sauces, Salads, and Vegetable Dishes, during Wartime, Jonathon Green's Consuming Passions, Jane Grigson's British Cookery and World Atlas of Food, Grossman and Thomas' Lobscouse & Spotted Dog.----------------------
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