"a soup with which to thaw a frozen soul." Nigel Slater
Today is officially the first day of the Australian summer. In Gippsland - further along the coast to the east from Melbourne there are floods - well a lot of rain anyway. Here in Melbourne it is just dull and miserable and it has been raining - lightly I have to say - for the past few days. So much so that David has done no washing - he insists on doing the washing these days - and I am running out of underwear.
I am sitting here with a long-sleeved top and a jumper and still feeling cold, so when I saw this absolutely gorgeous picture of Cheddar and cider soup from Nigel Slater in this week's Guardian Feast Newsletter I just had to share. More for the beauty of the photograph I guess - taken by his long-time photographer friend Jonathan Lovekin - than because I'm actually about to rush off and make it for dinner tonight.
No today I'm pretending it's summer and making that sautéed chicken with fennel, orange and olives, that I mentioned yesterday, for dinner. And truth to tell I'm not nearly as excited about that as I am about that beautiful looking soup.
With respect to The Guardian and it's foodie newsletter I often feel somewhat frustrated, because, of course, because I live on the opposite side of the world the seasons are reversed. And so when we are in summer they are in winter. This week's version had the header "food and drink for when it's dark outside", which it currently is at 4.00 pm so my sister tells me. I suppose it's not dark outside here but the weather is definitely wintry - well autumnal anyway. We are still having a warming open fire as we watch the television at night. So this week's newsletter was not such a long way from what one could feel like eating here. Goulash, mushrooms and more soups were the big thing this week.
So having started with that picture I had to continue with bread and cheese soups. Just bread and cheese, not a particular soup with some cheese and bread added. Not French onion soup either, which is mostly about the onions. There were lots of broccoli, cheese and bread soups, cauliflower too. I'm also ignoring various soups which seem to be Irish in origin - beer and cheese soups which are served in a hollowed out cob loaf. These soups also have the addition of crispy bacon, and here is where I found that even though it may have originated in Europe - most likely Germany - it's really taken root in mid America, where they add a jalapeno or two as well. I should perhaps look into them sometime.
No - my mission was soups whose prime ingredients were bread and cheese.
First of all Nigel Slater's version which various people had a go at making, and which various publications promoted. Many of them said he invented it, and in a sense you could say he did - the cider is the innovative thing I think. He has another slight variation, pictured here which he calls Soup of bread and cheese. It's not very different and can be found in his latest book A Cook's Book. It does indeed look gorgeous, and it's pretty simple but not quite as simple as some. This is how he describes it:
"Something of the fondue about this. I suggest a mature, full-flavoured cheddar such as Keens or Montgomery here. The stock should, if possible, be home-made, chicken or vegetable. Bread is pretty much non-negotiable here, either torn and placed in the base of the soup bowl, the soup ladled over it, or toasted and dipped into the soup’s creamy depths in fat, jagged chunks."
His soup is really a bit of cheat, because although he gives you the alternative of pouring the soup over the bread or dipping it into the finished soup, the soup itself is not made with bread. Really it's a kind of potage bonne femme with the addition of cheese. Which by no means means that it's no good. I definitely shall be trying it some time, although hopefully summer will actually appear soon and so it won't look quite as tempting.
There are however several very, very, very simple and frugal versions of a cheese and bread soup. It's the kind of thing that housewives - poor housewives - would have been throwing together to feed their family when times were tough, since time immemorial. For a genuine historical - 18th century - version you can watch a guy called Townsend make Cheshire cheese soup, the recipe for which he got from an 18th century cookbook and is as follows:
"to make a Cheshire Cheese soup
Put the crumb of a penny loaf into three pints of water, boil it and grate half a pound of old Cheshire. Put it into the bread and boil it."
The only thing to watch in the whole process was that as the cheese melted you kept stirring fairly strongly so that it didn't catch on the bottom. He added some chives at the end. And you know it really looked pretty good - creamy and comforting - just stale bread, old cheese and water. Not even alcohol or stock, although of course you can tart it up however you fancy. When you are really down on your luck this is one to try. Or just feeling old-fashioned.
French chef Jaques Pépin also offers a very simple peasant version - Peasant soup - made by his mother, the recipe for which can be found on the Kahakai Kitchen website. His version is even simpler - just pour stock over toasted bread with grated cheese on top and there you are - dinner:
"For this soup like the one my mother used to make, prepare croutons by baking slices of leftover bread in a conventional oven or toaster oven until brown and crisp. Divide the toasted bread among soup bowls, breaking the slices into pieces if they are too large, and grate a generous amount of Gruyère or Jarlsberg on top. Bring a good homemade chicken stock or canned broth to a boil and pour over the croutons and cheese in the bowls. Sprinkle with cracked pepper and a few chopped chives and serve." Jacques Pépin
I found him talking about this in a couple of places so it's obviously a comfort food for him. I guess celebrity chefs might get fed up with fancy food every now and then.
And here we turn to the Italians - mostly of the north - who seem to be into bread and cheese soup. The bread in question here, tends to be grissini, which has a tendency to make the soup, if you are not careful, look mildly unpleasant. Piedmont has Zuppa dei Valdesi - the Valdesi referring to a particular valley. I found two versions with this name one from a website called Memorie di Angelina and the other from Lisa Featherby of Gourmet Traveller. The concept with this particular soup of bread and cheese, is to layer the bread and cheese in a pan, pour stock over and then bake in the oven. Depending on how long you bake it, it could potentially finish up as more of a savoury kind of bread pudding, than a soup. Tasty anyway. There are also two very similar soups both with the same name, but one in English - Cheese and Bread Soup from Lorraine Elliot of Not Quite Nigella who uses those grissini and another one from Emma Knowles and Lisa Featherby of Gourmet Traveller with the Italian name Zuppa de formaggi. And of course people get more elaborate and start adding things like tomatoes or spinach. Probably nice but not really bread and cheese.
I can't quite leave without mentioning passatelli, which are almost a kind of pasta. For this dish you make a dough with the breadcrumbs and cheese, then force it through a potato ricer or meat mincer or something similar - maybe you can even roll them like the pici of yesterday. These are then tipped into a boiling broth and just cooked through. The Pasta Project website, which I seem to have come across a fair bit of late, has a recipe for Passatelli in brodo and a young British chef called Pamela Yung elaborates a little with her Passatelli in broth with spring greens. There are other more exotic things in her broth as well. Like those mushrooms.
Simple and basic, yet again can be tarted up to become pretty fancy. It just takes a bit of imagination and probably hours making the perfect broth to cook it all in. Not water as in that 18th century recipe. I will try Nigel Slater's cider version sometime however - to 'thaw my frozen soul'. My soul is a bit frozen at the moment, looking forward to summer with a mix of trepidation (bush fires) and anticipation of sunshine and joyful moments wining and dining in the sunshine. And meanwhile shivering a little in the morning.
As I was checking out Nigel Slater's recipes, I came across this recipe for Brandy snaps with cinnamon cream and was overcome with nostalgia for the brandy snaps of my childhood and the fun we had rolling them around wooden spoons. Nigel uses rolling pins. I think I'm going to make some for Chrismas. Comfort and joy in one delicious mouthful or two. I can almost feel the crack and crunch of the biscuits - or are they wafers?
David tells me it's going to be a mere 15 degrees with rain tomorrow. Maybe Christmas will be a European kind of Christmas after all and we won't feel so silly eating platefuls of hot roast turkey and ham. With brandy snaps to follow. Yum. The grandsons could fill them just before serving. You could probably put icecream in them instead of the cream.