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Over the top?

"There is no limit to the amount of toppings you can put on your soup—you just might need a bigger bowl if you go too hard."

Alyse Whitney/Bon Appétit

It's soup season and the supermarket magazines have lots of soup recipes, Lots and lots in fact. This one - Spiced sweet potato and parsnip soup - is on the cover of the current Coles Magazine and I think it absolutely epitomises the current craze for strewing all manner of stuff over the top of your soup. Now, as you know, I am an absolute sucker for beauty and presentation when it comes to food. Maybe it's because I'm so bad at it myself. However, even though this particular soup does indeed look really beautiful, I think this is a step too far. I mean how on earth do you eat that lovely topping of chargrilled parsnip and carrot with a spoon? And I'm never sure about whole leaves of mint.

It does demonstrate how far we have come though since the days of Elizabeth David and her Potage Crècy (carrot soup), shown here. Now this is a modern photograph from the book Elizabeth David on Vegetables, which is edited by Jill Norman, but even so they have kept it simple and not even put the croutons on top. Just a sprinkling of parsley, which is what I might have done back in the day. The other interesting thing about this particular photograph though is the thickness of the soup. And it has just occurred to me that maybe vegetable soups are made thicker today so that you can cover it with all those other things. After all the soup at the top of the page, is basically the same thing - just sweet potato rather than carrots.

The carrot soups that I ate in France, and, indeed that I made from Elizabeth David's recipe would have been much thinner - even thinner than this version, but I and the French would also have added a dob of butter to melt into the soup. I couldn't resist this photograph because these are Arabia soup bowls and I have this particular set - not used enough rather sadly. And yes it's chives, not parsley but it's the same effect.

Last word on the carrot soup that claims to be Elizabeth David's. Thick is not tempting to me - too gloopy. But now I do see that if you want to spread stuff all over the top then perhaps your soup has to be thick or your toppings will all sink to the bottom.

Times have changed. Did we not care how our food looked back then? I think we did, because there have always been haute cuisine establishments which took great care with how things looked - although the look was somehow different back then. I went searching through my older cookbooks and came across this one in Julia Child's massive tome The Way to Cook, and it reminded me why the soup was more or less just soup in a bowl. It was because it was served at the table from a soup tureen - like the ones in the background here. And not just in classy restaurants, because I seem to remember my French hostesses doing the same. Maybe even my grandmother. Whatever happened to soup tureens? I don't think I have see one for decades. Now it's all about plating:

"Because it's not only what goes into the soup that matters, it's what goes onto the soup too." Joe Sevier/Epicurious

Once the soup tureen was abandoned - for whatever reason that might have been - perhaps another post on the horizon there - restaurants had to start making their soups look good, above and beyond how good a soup can look on its own.

Indeed when I think about it, back in the day the look of the plate was perhaps more important than what was on it. Nowadays, more often than not, we just have plain white plates because food looks better on white. Well that's what they say anyway. White on white? Maybe - if you're clever.

To begin with people just started swirling stuff through it with maybe a few sprinkled herbs on top - as in Delia's Watercress soup below. The swirling got fancier and fancier as in Spicy sesame carrot soup with red lentils from a website called First Mess, and those seeds, nuts and shredded vegetables started to creep in with the swirls as in the very arty photograph of a beetroot soup.

And you know, maybe less is more because Delia's effort looks really classy, and moreover, tempting, whereas you might feel you don't want to spoil the beauty of the others, or fight your way through the toppings.

The other simple approach is the rustic one which may well have begun with French onion soup - two examples of which are below and both of which, even though separated by decades, emphasise the dish in which it is served - Robert Carrier on the left and Guillaume Brahimi on the right - followed by Jamie's, almost slapdash Super leek and potato soup (boosted with kale which explains the green colour) which has a massive chunk of bread covered with stuff, in it - though rather more clumsily than in the carrot soup above, and, to be honest, I'm not sure it's a good way to present it. And once again look how thick the soup is. Was soup always thick like that?

If you want to browse a whole lot of supposedly beautiful soups with toppings, then you can trawl through this Pinterest selection. I actually found lots of articles suggesting what you should put on top of soups - mostly falling into categories like 'crunchy', 'creamy', 'rich', 'fresh and herby', 'bright' and 'filling'. I think the ones above would fit into the 'filling' category. There was also lots of advice:

"your favourite snack”, be that toasted corn or crisps. Just be sure it won’t disintegrate" The Guardian

"you could just top soup with a whole other dish" Joe Sevier/Epicurious which I have to say was the only comment I found that seemed to say, however, obliquely, that all these toppings were - well - over the top. Mostly the opinion was that it was the topping that made the soup.

"top tip for making the most out of your soup is to make sure the filler or topper reflects the initial ingredients of the dish." Maddie Rex/Jamie Oliver

So here are two relatively restrained and classy looking examples Celeriac, garlic and rice soup with lemon salsa from Ottolenghi and Perfect pumpkin soup from Felicity Cloake.

One of the things that Ottolenghi and others like him have done is to actually create a whole lot of these toppings and use them to top all sorts of things - or just to nibble as a snack - think things like dukkah.

But I began with Coles, so I'll end with Coles, because they were really into it in this last issue of their magazine, which is why I started this whole thing. The one at the top is the most extreme, mostly because of the difficulty of eating it, but here are some others, which perhaps are a tiny bit excessive? Vegan creamy tomato and chilli soup; New pea and ham soup; Smoked cod, leek and corn chowder and Italian sausage and potato soup - the recipe for which is not yet online.

It's definitely a thing though isn't it? You will rarely find a picture of a bowl of soup in a magazine of any kind - or online - without something sprinkled on top - even covering the soup underneath entirely. I guess you see it less with soups in which the soup itself is chunky rather than smooth - soups such as minestrone and chicken noodle, but even there you might get an artful swirl of pesto, or aesthetically shaved strips of Parmesan.

I confess I don't do the topping thing with the soups I make, Maybe I should. Maybe it would give a whole new taste to them - which is the sort of thing you get with Ottolenghi and his contemporaries. Something unexpected and mostly delicious. But then again, wouldn't you just lose the taste of the soup itself?

Or maybe I should try and find a soup tureen?


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