What's the Story
on the Cold Fruit Soup Front?
(e-SoupSong 15: July 1, 2001)
ONCE UPON A TIME, Pippi Longstocking had a fantasy about American children walking in gutters. "It's only in this country [Sweden] that people have got the notion that children shouldn't walk in gutters. In America the gutters are so full of children that there is no room for the water. They stay there the year round. Of course in the winter they freeze in and their heads stick up through the ice. Their mothers have to carry fruit soup and meatballs to them because they can't come home for dinner. But they're sound as nuts, you can be sure of that."
Pretty crazy, huh? Well, actually turns out to be a perfect symbol for the whole subject of fruit soups. Food scholar Alan Davidson calls fruit soups "perplexing," "an anomaly"--and that's an understatement.
I knew when I started that cold fruit soups were popular in a few strange and seemingly unconnected places: Scandanavia and Israel; the Baltics and Central Europe; Russia and the Caribbean. Then, if you add in traditional hot fruit soups--especially ones with meat in them--you can also factor in Iran, parts of the Mideast, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and China. Finally, you can scroll back about 700 years and recall that in medieval Europe, fruits and spices were stuffed into soups and lots of other savory things.
But nowhere else in the world, at least in a traditional sense. Not Japan, Korea, or Southeast Asia. Not Australia, the Philippines, or the East Indies. Not India nor Africa (except for the occasional banana in Tanzanian or Senegalese soups). Not the British Isles or western Europe, unless you count tomatoes and cucumbers as the fruits they are (in which case you'd include Spain's gazpacho). Not North America or South America (with a few funky exceptions that prove the rule).
Fruit soup! Who would think of smooshing up luscious fresh fruit and cooking it into a liquid to be eaten with a spoon? And why would it be embraced by some cultures...and resolutely shunned by others?
Silly me: I thought it would be easy to figure out why these soups started up and took hold...and how they spread. Something to do with those fantastical medieval European cooks cheerfully dumping available sweet fruits in lots of things. Or, okay, gotta be--something to do with Finno-Ugric migrations from remote Russia way back in the BCEs, long before the Christian Era. Or, plausibly, it was the ancient overland trade routes that stitched these fruity soup customs together in some kind of logical pattern.
But, you know, I am here to tell you that after a whole month of research--getting more and more panicked as the end of the month approached--I still don't have an answer. I have a lot of information. I've eaten a lot of great fruit soups--and some not so great. I even have a Theory. But I really just don't know for sure. If you're not in the mood for conjecture, I encourage you to hit the delete key now cause conjecture is all I've got.
Well, not all. Maybe I should start by getting you excited about cold fruit soups in the first place. I mean, really, if you were as hot as I am right this minute in the humid pits of dog day Washington, DC, you would be excited.
YOU'VE GOT TO TRY THESE
For example, I've got a doozie of a sour cherry recipe from grande cuisine in 19th century Russia: Sup iz Vishni. It is such a pretty champagne soup, with rich pools of creme fraiche sunk into its warm dusky rose surface. One spoonful and your chair turns into a Romanov throne--suddenly you're exchanging des bons mots with that brilliant poet Alexander Pushkin.
Then there's a to-die-for Danish orange soup: Appelsinsuppe. Delicate but chunky with bits of fresh orange, it combines freshly squeezed orange juice and white wine in a light sugar syrup scented with cinnamon stick. It was all I could do not to pick up the bowl and drink down all four servings at a blow.
Other Scandanavian soups? Finnish rhubarb soup--Rapaperikiisseli--pretty in pink and mounded with puffs of whipped cream. Swedish Blandad fruktsoppa and Norwegian Sopsuppe, both thick with fresh and dried fruits, both served hot or cold.
Then there's Central Europe: Czech blueberry soup--Boruvková polévka sudená--thick and rich with sour cream; refreshing and very very blue. German rasberry soup--Himbeer katschale--sweet and tart and often mixed with buttermilk. Polish apricot soup--Zupa ze moreli--thick, jewel-like, and swirled with sour cream. Hungarian meggyleves thick with sour cherries in red wine and splashed with cream. And don't forget that German/Czech plum soup in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that Prince Shcherbatsky claims cured his daughter Kitty during their sojourn to Carlsbad: bestowing gifts on "every one, including Lieschen, the servant-girl, and the landlord, with whom he jested in his comically bad German, assuring him that it was not the water had cured Kitty, but his splendid cookery, especially his plumsoup."
And the Baltics and Eastern Europe: Latvian Yablochniy Sup s Klyotskami, with cool, chunked apples and apple dumplings macerated in apple brandy. Estonian Leivasupp that's exactly like liquid fruitcake with black bread, cranberries, raisins, prunes, and plum brandy. Chrianteli: Georgian sweet cherry soup with herbs and garlic--but no recipe here, folks. Tastes interesting, but looks like ground up horse meat.
UR FRUIT SOUP
Think fruit soups and, if you're like me, you'd think "elegant"--surely they must have developed in Medieval or Renaissance court kitchens. But, no, not at all. They are folk cookery all the way.
They may look fancy, but they're easy to make, substantial, don't require sophisticated equipment or ovens, and don't use much expensive (in earlier times) sugar and spices. Mom could send the kids out to pick berries...then whip up a sweet creation in a matter of minutes that would knock their socks off.
Of course variations of cold fruit soups are as legion as the number of cooks who made and make them, but from the landscape of many many cookbooks, past and present, the Mother of all of them emerges from the shadows, for 4-6 people:
You cook the fruit in the water with the spices and sugar til it's soft. You take out the cinnamon stick, mash some or all of the fruit, then 1) thicken it with tapioca or potato starch or cornstarch or sago or flour or bread or barley and serve it in bowls with some dairy product on top (cream, creme fraiche, yoghurt, or sour cream), OR 2) thicken it with sour cream or yoghurt and serve up with buttered croutons.
- 2 cups fresh fruit (or re-hydrated dried fruit)
- 3 cups water
- 3 Tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1 stick cinnamon
- cream/yoghurt accent
This is not rocket science. Throughout history, in certain places, it has served to sweeten the meals and lives of certain peoples all year long, so long as cook remembered to dry and store summer fruits.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE VARIATIONS?
This might be a good section for non hard-core foodies to skip. I couldn't help myself: I had to draw up a matrix so I could see who did what along this necklace of cold-fruit-soup-producing countries in terms of myriad cold fruit soup issues--like WHEN it's served; HOW it's thickened; WHETHER it's cooked/uncooked, hot/warm/cold, dried/fresh; HOW it's spiced and garnished. And I hope you will forgive the gross generalizations I make, based on what I know to be limited resources. I am crossing my fingers that I get masses of outraged notes from around the world that itemize my errors. Please.
Okay, here goes. Moving east to west (stay tuned for The Theory):
Cold fruit soups in Russia, the Caucasus, and the Ukraine tend to be pure fruit and on the savory side--fresh, uncooked fruit; no thickeners; not much or any sugar; always served cold and always as a first course. Sometimes served with sour cream; the further south you go, the more you meet yoghurt.
Now, taking the Northern Route west, these cold fruit soups march through the Baltics into Scandanavia. Soups in Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are served either hot or cold and as a first or last course (also for breakfast and snacks in earlier times). They're made out of fresh or dried fruits; they're cooked, thickened, spiced with lemon, wine, and a little cinnamon; and they're topped with sweet cream. Interesting differences? Sweden serves it before fish. Norway, after meat. Finland, as the last course before retiring to coffee and pastries in another room. Estonia serves it as dessert; Denmark too, except for Rodgrod, which comes before the meat course.
Taking the Southern Route west from Russia, these soups look different. Think sour cream, big time. Think garnishing them with dumplings and croutons crisped in butter. Think serving them over noodles. They're invariably served as a first course or even as a complete meal. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany have huge repertoires of these soups, and they're amazing rich. There's a little spillover into other European countries, but not much: Fruchtsuppe in the Basle region of Switzerland that even tosses in chocolate bits, and Kalte Shale in Austria, very like the German fruit soups (instead of Hungarian, interestingly enough).
THEORY TIME: IT'S A SWEET/SOUR THING
So the question that burns me is: why is cold fruit soup traditional in some places and not others?
And here's what I think. I think it all started with an ancient Russian people who lived in primeval forests north of what's now the Caspian Sea. When their population grew beyond the food supply around 2000 BCE, a whole branch broke off--the Finno-Estonians--and migrated through Russia to the Baltics and Scandanavia. Later, in 500 BCE, another branch broke off--the Magyars--and began a serial migration, first to Central Asia, mingling with Persians and Bulgars, then to the Ukraine, finally sweeping into the Carpathian Basin around the 8th century AD, from where they terrorized all of Europe until the battle of Augsburg in 955.
It seems likely to me that these people carried in common a taste for sweet-sour combinations, which they spread to anyone on their travels who found it to their liking. Then, if they met people who already liked sweet-sour, they expanded their repertoire. Living among the Persians, for example, must have been totally exciting, foodwise, for these Magyars. That's cause Persians pretty much lived in the garden of eden of fruit: apples, pomegranates, melons, peaches, grapes, apricots, lemons, and oranges, all growing there since Persia stood at the crossroads of all the best trade routes, connecting Russia, the Middle East, and China. And those Persians, from the most ancient times, loved their hot soups stuffed with meat, vegetables, and fruit, a love that they also passed on to the Mideast.
But the rage for and spread of sweet/sour soups reached its zenith in medieval times. When crusaders brought back foods and spices and customs from the Holy Land, Europeans went nutty (and fruity). Beginning in the 11th century and ratcheting up in the 14th and 15th centuries, European aristocrats were mad for oriental combinations: Italian cinnamon chickpea soup and apple chicken soup; French cherry pottage and chicken/dried fruit soup; and get a load of the potage served at Lord Grey's banquet in England--cabbage, turnips, parsnips, pears, honey, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, aniseed, fennel seed, mustard seed, currants, and raisins.
By the 17th century, though, the rage was as dead as pet rocks are today. You wouldn't find fruity soups on a king's table anywhere...or an aristocrat's...or a even a city burgher's. BUT. But, you would still find them on the tables of the poor--and lots of them--in those countries where Finno-Ugric people had passed, settled, or interacted over the centuries (remember how peripatetic those Vikings had been). And these people not only preserved the tradition, they refined it...right into cold fruit soup. It was easy to leave out the meat, for example, cause they didn't have much of it, and what they had was mostly salted. Ditto on the savory elements (though Hamburg still specializes in Aalsuppe with its chunks of eel, dried fruit, and veggies cooked in ham stock). Plus it was perfect for Lenten season--no meat, rich in flavor, and packed with an energy boost. Plus it automatically began to cool the minute it was made since it can't stand up to reboiling. So, over time, pure fruit soup was born and cooled in homes along this curious geographical path, becoming the cultural icons they are today.
AND WHAT ABOUT THOSE EXCEPTIONS?
Well, they mostly make sense when you think about it.
Why Israel's Marak Peirot and other cold fruit soups? Because so many Baltic, Russian, and Eastern European Jews have migrated there.
Why pockets of America? Because some one and a half million Swedes emigrated to the U.S. between 1870 and 1914 when their food ran out (thus the first cookbook reference ever in the U.S.: Cold currant soup in Mrs. S. T. Rorer's 20 Quick Soups in 1894). And that's not even counting the many many other migrations from other cold soup lands. In fact, my all time favorite strawberry soup was sent by Lisa Gitelson in New York City.
Why the Caribbean? Not what you'd think. Natives to the area prefer their soup hot, piquant, and without fruit...but entrepreneurial restauranteurs have introduced a rainbow of cold soups from local fruits to please hot tourists with a cold start to their meal. For instance, Haitian Consomme a l'Orange.
And China? An anomaly. Just where we started, so a good place to end. Chinese hot fruit soups surely arose independently, in line with their love of sweet/sour combinations and as their medical concepts of balancing body humors developed. Too hot or yang? Have a nice yin pear-honey-lemon balm soup to cool and cleanse you--ching bo leung. Need a tonic to moisten your internal organs? Try steamed peach and honey date soup. Want to counter rich, fatty, or salty foods in the middle of a meal? Serve Mo Fa Guo Mut Zoe Tong, or fresh fig and honey date soup. That'll fix you up.
Addenda: Friend Wiebe Van Der Molen from the Netherlands advises: "The fruit soup I know from my province is called there krentjebrij, mentioned in books as "watergruwel", a horrible name. It contains raisins, dried currants (Vitis), preserved juice of red currants (Ribes, home made in bottles with some oil on top against molds) with barley as thickener and cinnamon as spice. Served cold in summer, hot in winter.
Simple, but not bad (in my province the expression for "very good")."
Major References: M Black's The Medieval Cookbook; The Cambridge World History of Food; The Cooking of Scandanavia; A Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food; S Fallon's Hungary; J Grigson's Fruit Book; E. Henriksen's Scandanavia Past and Present; BJ Houde's The Scandanavian Countries, 1720-1865; ID Jensen's Wonderful Danish Cooking; Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Goes On Board; W Oleksy's The Old Country Cookbook; TS Peterson's Acquired Taste; Redon, Sabban, & Serventi's The Medieval Kitchen; CIA Ritchie's Food Civilization; L Sass's To the King's Taste; Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, M Toussant-Samat's Hitory of Food; J Trager's The Food Chronology; The World Atlas of Food.
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NEXT MONTH: SOUP AND THE BEAT GENERATION