"a recipe designed to be as fluid as the weather" Nigel Slater
Yesterday I wrote about boredom and looking at the title of this post you (and I) might think - boring. Well I hope not. Let's see.
The dish at left appeared in my latest Guardian Newsletter and is Carrot soup with carrot leaf pesto from the lovely Nigel Slater, who I have ignored a bit of late. It reminded me how much I like carrot soup, which is such a basic, basic thing and also how it is one of those dishes that conjures up memories for me. So I thought I would try to turn it into a post.
When Nigel Slater penned those words at the top of the page he was introducing another of his versions of carrot soup - Spiced carrot soup in 2021. It was springtime for him. It is Autumn here and now, but yes, the weather here in Melbourne is 'fluid'. A couple of days ago it was sunny and 25 degrees. Today it is currently a mere 16 degrees going down to 4 degrees overnight. And he is right. Carrot soup is capable of spanning both of those situations. It is simultaneously summery, largely perhaps because of its sunny colour, and wintry - because it is warming and nourishing.
I actually do not remember my mother making a pure carrot soup, but I do remember eating it in France - in the evenings in Meung-sur-Loire. There it may well have been called Potage Crècy after the region of France near Paris where the best carrots in France were said to be grown. And here's a little fact I learnt today. In 1346 the English had a massive and famous victory over the French at the Battle of Crècy. Legend has it that the victorious soldiers were served this soup after the battle. Moreover King Edward VII in the early 20th century would celebrate that long ago victory on the day of the battle with this soup. I doubt the modern day French did. They may not even have heard of the battle. I know that in one conversation with my French hosts they had never heard of the Battle of Agincourt. And maybe nobody today has either. Which just goes to show that the same historical events are remembered differently by different nations.
Anyway when I acquired French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David a little before I was married, I think the very first thing I made from it was Potage Crècy. The photograph above is one of hers - she had two recipes for the same dish - which can be found on the Red Online website, where they call it Elizabeth David's carrot soup. The taste was so reminiscent of France that I made it on and off for years. I still do.
I learnt a few things from her about cooking this soup - grate the carrots, and 'melt' them in quite a lot of butter with a shallot and a diced potato and - the magic ingredient - a touch of sugar. Softening the vegetables slowly in the butter with sugar transforms the whole thing. Then, of course, you add some stock simmer, purée and serve - with chopped parsley and chervil if you can find it - and a final dab of butter. The photograph above is taken from Jill Norman's collection of recipes Elizabeth David on Vegetables, and the link above is to the actual recipe, but this photograph on the right from one of my other French cooking books, for Soupe Nivernais looks much more how I remember it. The version above is too thick. But then I guess that's just a question of the quality of the potatoes which are used to thicken the soup, and also the amount of liquid. After all you can adjust to your own taste. Personally I prefer the thinner version. Actually lots of recipes for Potage Crècy say that rice is the thickening agent but I have never tried that. And in her schoolmarmy way Elizabeth David also insists on you using the highest quality carrots. Well she would wouldn't she?
It's such an ordinary everyday dish that it's barely worth mentioning. But for me, possibly because of the memories it evokes, it is one of the jewels of French cooking. Well all of their soups really. When I eat one I am instantly transported back to the kitchen in that apartment in the town hall in that little village with the french doors opening on to a balcony and the four of us seated round the table.
So just to finish here are a few more offerings from the more modern world. Nigel Slater is obviously a fan of carrot soup. He has at leat four versions, two of which I have shown already. There were references to a coriander version but I could find no pictures or indeed the recipe itself, so I will restrict myself to this one - Carrot, tomato and halloumi soup and one from a fan - Tanya Mushanova on Instagram, which she says is from his book Greenfeast and which she simply calls Carrot soup.
Delia is also a fan - of the soup - not necessarily Nigel Slater, though she probably is - and has four different recipes, although there is no picture for her first one - Carrot and leek soup - a carroty version of Vichyssoise; the two below are Carrot and coriander soup and Carrot and tarragon soup. There is also one with artichokes but I don't like artichokes so I've left it out.
Back in the day there was not much decoration of the soup - maybe a sprinkling of herbs, a dab of butter or a swirl of cream, but these days, as those Nigel Slater recipes already show, we tend to load our soups with toppings as below: there is another one that uses the carrot tops, but in a different way, from Emma Knowles - Roast carrot soup with carrot-top pesto; Chickpea, carrot and swede soup with herby olives from Ottolenghi who also has a Carrot and coconut soup but with no picture. Coconut is a popular addition - from Tom Walton in delicious. Roast carrot, coconut and miso soup and also in a rather simpler presentation from the New York Times' Mark Bittman - Curried carrot and coconut soup.
Remember the sugar that I said made all the difference? Well the late Valli Little used maple syrup instead in her Carrot and maple syrup soup. And she's serving hers with some small kind of savoury scone, which is something, I admit, I like to serve with soup too. The French wouldn't though. For them it would be a baguette.
They all look delicious, but it does seem as if these days we have to complicate things, particularly when it comes to the final presentation. Sometimes there seems to be more on top of the soup than in the soup itself.
The thickness of the soup is obviously a personal thing. I think the picture - from an official source no less - of the original Elizabeth David version is far too gloopy for me. It almost looks like a dip. Me I'm a middle way person - so not too thick and not too thin and just a bit of parsley and a dab of butter on top. Goldilocks. Now if only I had golden hair.
Gold soup though. In every way.