Soup Glorious Soup

Whether it’s Sop or Suppa, Soupe or Soup, we all have our own version of a liquid hug.
Eight thousand years ago the Ancient Romans slopped onion soup into their red brick slip ware, old Germans ladled their leek and karoffel suppa into gold rimmed porcelain, whilst the Vietnamese feasted on Pho. Chinese archaeologists unearthed a 2,400-year-old bronze cooking vessel filled with liquid and bones in Xian. 8,000 terracotta warriors had been guarding the slop since the Xia’s built the Great Wall.
Why there’s even a caff in Wattana Panich in Bangkok that has been simmering noodle soup for 45 years. Nattapong Kaweeantawong decants the broth every night, washes out his wok, pours the soup back into the clean pan and then, for nearly half a century, a relative picks up a wooden spoon and starts stirring – wells that’s what relatives do.
However, my point is that soup has always been and still is everywhere. From Chowder to Tom Yum from Minestrone to Bouillabaisse, from Gazpacho to Borsht, Primordial or not we are surrounded by soup and as we live through the American election we find ourselves swimming around in yet another gloopy gumbo.
My mate Madeleine par boils a Bisque when the evenings turn brisk, the old git loves nothing better than a pot of Pea and Ham when autumn knocks. The dawter’s go-to-potage is carrot and coriander, whilst Dame Sylve from Chatham makes her very own tomato soup with ripe pickings from her husbands allotment.
My darling friend on Hermosa Beach doesn’t like soup; it makes him think of poverty and sets him off down the road of nostalgic melancholy. My friend in Greenwich thinks its more trouble than it’s worth, but I wager that soup is as important as a 15 tog deluxe, washable, wool duvet from Iceland filled with small, soft feathers from the breast of the female eider.
Soup has accompanied me through the journey of my little old life. Starting with Jewish Penicillin. When a chicken is over a year she becomes a hen. Big hens, in my youth, were our staple diet if the housekeeper could afford it. I’ve alway wondered why it wasn’t called Hen soup – the Caribbeans have Cock soup so why not Hen? But I digress. My mother’s chicken soup was the best in Stepney although, to be fair, every Jewish woman from Bathsheba in the bath to Maureen Lipman on the cobbles claims her mother’s soup is the best.
In my 20’s I made packet soup Fu Yung; the sachet ripped open, poured into a pot of boiling water, a beaten egg whisked into it and voila, a fitting meal for a starving drama student.
In my 30’s I discovered just how easy soup was to make. I was visiting a friend in Devon. Her husband was acting with mine in the West End so I went down for some rest and recuperation. She showed me how to sweat an onion in olive oil for 6 minutes, then tip in whatever veg was available, pour over some water with a sprinkling of stock and 40 minutes later, there it was, a pan of bubbling goodness. She had her first child – on the same day I had my dawter – 33 years ago, and I still think of her every time I have sweaty alliums.
In my 40’s I started to experiment with the help of Crank’s cookbook. A gift from the ‘oosbind when Cranks was still the ‘in place’ in Soho. The soup recipes are earthy and unctuous whilst the books tweedy jacket is the colour of their famous Parsnip and Lentil chunkfest.
In my 50’s I experimented with filling my soups with noodles, or the famous Kreplach – a dumpling filled with meat or mashed potatoes – or the famous Kneidlach, round balls of matzo meal dropped into the soup like bombs of bliss. My mothers Kneidlach were never light, they were never perfectly spherical, they were stodgy and the next best thing to her Yorkshire pudding which was never light and could have been used as the daub to my fathers wattle. They may have been heavy but they were as comforting as a maternal hygga.
In my 60’s I was faced with the menopausal onslaught of insomnia. Nobody has ever come up with a remedy for my night time ramblings but I discovered one balm that fills me with warmth and the onset of slumber. It is the very splendid Tomato soup from Herr Heinz, heated on the stove in a little pan and poured into a mug taken with or without bread and butter. I am the veritable poster girl for woolly socks, knees up to my chin, sitting in front of a roaring fire, hands round the mug, sipping on the creamy creamy red liquid. I would like to say that it works every time – but does it fuck. I’ve tried it with CBD oil, melatonin and a sprinkling of nutmeg, all to no avail. I blame Trump.
Aren’t we the sum total of all our experiences? If I fast forward my life I can barely believe some of those experiences like the time ‘Good Food Live’ paid for me to live in a fancy flat in London. I was close enough to walk to the studio as I learnt about sweets, sauces, seafood and soups. After a days filming I would sit with Lozzie, in my flat on the river in Battersea. She was a dazzling therapist who majored in regression. After a journey into a past life – do not judge – we would clear the table, set up some bowls, boil a packet of frozen peas, blitz them with a little mint and cream and slurp that pea soup as we mulled over my past lives as a botanist, French peasant or Mata Hari.
But now, inevitably as I turn into my mother, I have returned to the families good old chicken soup. My mother would arrive home with a big bird, sit it on her knee – it was dead of course – pluck it clean then turn on the gas burner. Holding the bird over the blue flame she would turn it round and round until the smell of burning feathers filled the kitchen. That huge hen would then be placed in a massive schissel – saucepan – and covered with clean water. When the water came to the boil she would sieve off the scum.
This, my mother called, ‘SHAHHING’. “The shit always rises to the surface,” she said.
“Be careful to shah away all the foamy mess, don’t rush. Add clean, clear water until the scum comes to the surface and then shah again.” Over the pot of boiling water she would stand, gently shahhing away the impurities, patiently, until there was not a speck of feather or fat. She would drop in a huge onion, a fat carrot, two sticks of celery, a big squashy tomato, a bunch of parsley and a large pinch of salt before bringing it to the boil again. Finally she would throw in a dash of white pepper, making her sneeze and the kitchen smell like the warehouses in Wapping. The huge pot was put on the back burner on the smallest of lights for a minimum of four hours, the condensation on the kitchen window heralding in the first broth of the season.
Now soup, whether it’s squash, fennel or chicken is central to our locked down lives. With the candles lit the conversation turns to the events of the day. Inevitably, the orange cock-womble comes up in conversation. Time to teach the young ones that they too have to be vigilant to shah way the scum. Like chicken soup, democracy requires patience and a watchful eye. Slowly but surely, shah away the impurities. Shah away the foamy filth. Clearing the golden liquid so that it is fat and feather free. If you’re lucky the old hen may have an egg hidden inside her. No shell but a perfectly formed ball of deliciousness and a symbol of fertility, resurrection, and eternal life. Hidden inside the soup are healing properties and the wisdom of the ancestors.
I can hear my mother now.
“When the scum has been shahhed off you will have a pure, clear soup with no impurities.”
As Issabel Allende said;
‘Real soup is to the body what peace is to the soul’.

2 thoughts on “Soup Glorious Soup”

  1. “Writing is a lot like making soup. My subconscious cooks the idea, but I have to sit down at the computer to pour it out.”
    Robin Wells
    “Mrs. Porter was from Virginia and had a smooth-as-cat-fur way of speaking. She taught me how to say, “Fiddle-Dee-Dee,” just like Scarlett O’Hara and she made her split-pea soup with bacon and even let me try on her lipstick sometimes as she teased up my hair in the same sixties style she wore, “Ala Pricilla Presley,” whoever that was.”
    Shannon Celebi
    Just 2 quotes I thought you’d like. Just like darling Jim, I love a pea & ham soup!
    I held that Cranks cookbook hostage for a time – it’s sadly out of print now!

  2. Hi Jeni
    What a coincidence this is, you mentioning, “good food live” I am at this very moment watch an episode if it !!! ” jeni Barnett 12 chefs of Christmas” I’m really loving it, and am remembering when I used to watch them all the time back in the day, just to say I really miss you on telly, you have such a cheerfull way and always soo intrested in listening to everyone, which is definitely missing in today’s telly show’s ,

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