St. Martin's Day:
The Reluctant Bishop and Goose Soup
(e-SoupSong 31: November 1, 2002)
ONCE UPON A TIME, a venerable saint was dying in France's beautiful Loire Valley. When his disciples tried to put a sheet under him, he refused: "It becomes not a Christian to die otherwise than upon ashes," he said. When they tried to ease his pain by turning him on his other side: "Allow me, my brethren to look towards Heaven rather than to earth, that my soul may be ready to take its flight to the Lord." On November 11, 397 AD, he was buried in Tours--and his life and deeds have been celebrated on that day--or on the day before--ever since.
Saint Martin--what a guy. Fourth century Imperial Roman soldier, conscientious objector, globe trotter, hermit, bishop, smasher of pagan temples in central France, interceder for heretics, and famously compassionate. You've likely seen paintings of him on horseback slicing his warm Roman cloak in half to share with a beggar outside the walls of Amiens.
And what about when the call came for him to leave his hermit's cell in Ligugé and become the Bishop of Tours in 371 AD? Folk stories say this: He objected strenuously and ran away--hiding in the goose house. But the geese outed him--cackling so loudly that the emissaries from Tours discovered him in all that mess. Was he annoyed? Well yes. Legend has it that, as an act of revenge, Martin killed one of the geese and cooked it for his dinner on the spot. Or here's another one: he was so angered by this that he decided that geese should be slaughtered annually on his name day.
Revenged? Angered? Not exactly saintly qualities. These are dead giveaways that we are dealing with folk tradition here, not history, and certainly not Catholic hagiography. More pious accounts agree that Martin didn't want the job, but they say a strategem was used to lure him to Tours--he was called to bless a sick person (which he would naturally be glad to do), then was forcibly conveyed to church for consecration. People didn't much stand on ceremony back then.
But to this day the goose connection with St. Martin remains--in France, in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Scandinavia, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. And in Sweden, roast goose on November 10, Martinmas Eve, is traditionally accompanied by svartsoppa, or "black soup," made of goose parts.
Of course there's a perfectly logical reason for this goosey tradition--and one that likely drove all the folk stories. November was precisely the month in northern Europe when livestock had to be slaughtered. Winter was a'coming in; the amount of livestock feed was severely limited; and anything that couldn't be kept alive over the winter had to be fattened, killed, and either eaten or cured. Not to mention that this was exactly the time that geese, pure and simple, were at their most supremely fattest and best. Thus all the harvest feasts. Then, too, in an ironic twist, geese were sacred to the very pagans that Martin was trying to convert--associated with Mars, the Roman god of war, and the Germanic god Wotan. So there's a certain symmetry, after all, to St. Martin wanting to do the bird in.
WHAT PUTS THE SVART IN SVARTSOPPA?
I couldn't wait to track this recipe down, knowing what fun it would be for soupsong readers to plan a traditional St. Martin menu.
Or maybe not.
Svartsoppa turns out to be sweet-sour, full of fruit, stuffed with spices, totally alcoholic, and...and...to get that characteristic black-red color...given a really big jolt of goose blood.
I am not kidding. I finally unearthed a genuinely authentic recipe from Skåne, the most southern of Sweden's provinces and today's true epicenter of svartsoppa. Here are its ingredients: goose stock; prunes, apricots, and black currants; vinegar; marjoram and thyme; cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and pepper; red wine, madeira, port, sherry, and cognac...and a really big jolt of goose blood (okay, and if you just CAN'T turn up that goose blood, it's fine to substitute pig's blood).
Hmm. Recognizing that most people today cannot and would not want to make, nor eat, such a soup, I have an alternative. Actually it's a two-for-one, since if you're going to make goose stock, you need a goose, and if you have a goose, you may as well do the whole feast and roast it for the main course. Thus I offer the following goose courses for St. Martin's Eve: nonsanguineous svartsoppa followed by succulent roast goose, which I hope you will accompany with the traditional prune, brussels sprout, red cabbage, and potato side dishes.
PERFECT ROAST GOOSE
This recipe works wonderfully with the frozen goose or gosling you can find in most any supermarket deep freeze. The process borrows Asian techniques and produces a tenderly moist and succulent bird, virtually fat free. All it takes is planning: you should buy and start defrosting the bird on November 6 to have it ready for St. Martin's Eve on Sunday, November 10.
1. Defrost the goose completely (2 days in the refrigerator).
- 1 frozen goose (the 8-pound variety ensures a really tender bird and serves 4-6)
- rubber gloves
- stuffing of your choice (I prefer none, with all those good side dishes, since it gets saturated with goose fat anyway)
2. Remove the giblets and neck and reserve for the soup. Cut off the wing tips and reserve for the soup. Cut away all the visible fat and reserve for other uses, making liver pâté, matzo balls, whatever.
3. Fill your biggest stock/canning pot (it should almost accommodate the bird) 2/3rds full of water and start to bring to a rolling boil.
4. Prick the skin all over, especially often on the breast and upper leg, being careful not to pierce the meat.
5. When the water is at a full boil, put on rubber gloves and plunge the bird, neck side down, into the pot. Hold there with tongs for a full minute. When you take it out, it will have "goose bumps" (yes, that's where the expression came from).
6. Turn the bird around and plunge it back into the pot, tail side down, and hold under water for another minute.
7. Drain the goose well, then set it breast side up on a roasting pan rack in a large roasting pan and set it in the refrigerator, uncovered and totally exposed, for 24 to 48 hours.
***************At this point you can start the soup, below*******************
8. When you are ready to roast the bird, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Salt and pepper the bird liberally, both inside and out. If you're going to stuff the bird, now's the time to do it--and sew the cavity shut.
9. Put the bird breast side down back on the rack and slide it into the oven. Leave it cooking, undisturbed, for an hour and a half.
10. After the hour and a half has passed, take the bird out of the oven, pour off the fat (and save for that pâté, etc.), and stick a meat thermometer in a thick, fleshy part of the bird, not touching bone. This is the only foolproof way I know of getting the bird cooked to perfection, no matter what it's weight (though conventional wisdom says 25 minutes per pound).
11. When the thermometer registers just shy of 185 degrees F. (85 degrees C.), take the bird out of the oven, raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F., siphon off the fat again, then flip the bird breast up and cook at the higher temperature for 15 more minutes, to crisp the skin.
12. Remove the bird from the oven and put on a platter, letting it sit uncovered for 30 minutes.
13. Pour off any remaining fat from the pan, deglaze with 2/3 cup dry sherry (water or wine is also fine), and make a gravy to serve with the goose.
And it's a honey, with a savory broth nuanced by sweet, smoky plums and the earthy sponge of mushrooms counterpointed by both the bite of tart apples and the richness of the giblets.
The Goose Stock
Put all ingredients in a pot and bring very slowly to a simmer at a very low heat. Simmer uncovered for about 3 hours, til the stock is reduced by a third. Cool without covering. Strain, reserve the giblets, and refrigerate the broth until you are ready to make the soup. You can remove the fat easily from the stock once it's cold, and use it with the fat from the roasted goose to saute the soup ingredients.
- reserved goose giblets, neck, and wing tips, rinsed (and feet if you can get them!)
- 8 cups cold water
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 white peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1 whole onion, stuck with 4 cloves
- 3 stalks celery with leaves, chopped into thirds
- 1 carrot, chopped in half
- 3 stalks parsley
The Soup (for 4-6 people)
Garnish: sherry, to be passed separately when serving
- 6 cups goose stock
- 1 cup dried bolete (porcini) mushrooms
- 3+ Tablespoons goose fat
- 3 tart apples, unpeeled and chopped into bite-size pieces
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 Tablespoons flour
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger
- 2 cups prune juice
- reserved giblets, cut into bite-size pieces
Rehydrate the mushrooms with 2 cups of warm stock for 30 minutes, then reserve the mushrooms, squeezing out excess liquid, and pour the mushroom liquid back into the stock.
Melt 3 Tablespoons of goose fat in a large saucepan, and saute the mushrooms, apples, and onion over medium heat until the onion begins to take on color. Stir in the flour and ginger (adding goose fat as necessary if it's too dry) and cook on low for a few minutes. Whisk in the stock until lightly thickened. When ready to serve, stir in the prune juice and giblets and reheat. Ladle into bowls and pass a cruet of sherry for people to flavor the soup as they please.
Best regards...and Smaklig måltid (good appetite!),
Resources: Bonnie Blackburn and Leofrank Holford-Strevens' Oxford Companion to the Year; Carol Field's Celebrating Italy; Larousse Gastronomique; Lives of the Saints; Caitlin Matthews' Celtic Book of Days; Beatrice Ojakangas' Scandanavian Feasts; Gladys Dorothy Spicer's The Book of Festivals; Sulpicius Severus; and an assortment of newspaper articles and Internet websites.
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NEXT MONTH: Revolution, Independence, and the New Year--Haiti's Soup Joumou