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Potage, potagers and stick blenders

"It is the destiny of some new instruments of modern times to change at one fell swoop the whole structure and habit of today's living. Such an instrument was the fork; such were the rotary whisk, the refrigerator, the deep-freeze - and such, I am sure, is the electric blender." Robert Carrier

I think this is the last of the potential blog subjects I rambled through a week or so ago. I'm actually combining two of those, and trying to avoid repeating myself a bit as well when it comes to soup. So here we go with a bit of this and a bit of that, which is what soup sometimes is.

Robert Carrier wrote those words back in 1963 and when he was referring to a blender I am sure he was referring to what we here in Australia would call a liquidiser. Not a food processor or a stick blender. They are more recent kitchen tools, although I guess they, like spice and coffee grinders are enhancements of the original liquidiser. And yes the liquidiser would have been revolutionary - and not just for soup. There are all manner of things you can make with a liquidiser, and even more with a food processor.

Prior to these the French had the mouli of course. Quite why this wonderful invention did not make it across the English channel I really do not know, because before that one would have had to use a sieve. I actually remember making a Provençal fish soup once by pushing all the cooked fish and vegetables through a sieve. An extraordinarily tedious process it was too. Never again I swore and indeed I never have done it again. I think I was afraid that if I used a mouli bits of bone would get through. Or perhaps the recipe just said to do it that way and I did not think to demur. I should have another go though - if you carefully deboned the fish you could do it all with a stick blender in the twinkling of an eye. The bad experience led me to choose it from a menu if ever I see it though. I just love it.

Going back to the English I suspect that most of their soups were not puréed. Not quite true. Now that I think about it I don't think my mother made soup. Any soup we had came out of a tin - Heinz tomato soup, followed later by various Campbell's soups, and even, every now and then soup out of a packet - dehydrated onion soup I seem to remember. I used to love these things - thus proving that ignorance is indeed bliss. I can't remember now whether I brought a mouli back with me from one of my French holidays. I certainly bought one there for myself when I married. And I bought a replacement on my last trip I think. I had tried various expensive versions here to replace my original, rusting one, but they had never worked as well as the cheap one I bought in the hypermarket in France way back then and also more recently.

But back to stick blenders. They are indeed the best thing for making a puréed soup from this and that. Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking said that a mouli was better because it produced soup that still had a bit of texture, but she too was writing before the stick blender. Mind you I think a liquidiser could produce a textured purée. Surely it depends on how long you blend it for?

However, when it comes to soup, a stick blender is so much better. So much easier to wash and store and assemble. Well you barely have to assemble it at all. Just be careful that the electricity is off before you take it out and start washing it! I do still use my mouli but not for soup.

Now the potager. The potager is a vegetable garden and I thought about this because of Monty Don's French gardens episode about them. I've done vegetable gardens before, but just wanted to show you two photographs - well three actually. The first two are of the extremely elaborate - indeed magnificent - potager at the Chateau de Villandry in the Loire valley. Magnificent but its main purpose is decoration, not food. Then there is a typical French potager that I photographed somewhere in the middle of France. You see them everywhere. The French are not much into flower gardens but they sure are into vegetable gardens, whether it's in their own backyard or some communal plot. And they are immaculate and productive. Dinner depends on what is in the garden that day.

From potager comes potage. And potage is soup. According to Stephanie Alexander:

"La soupe is different from le potage. Traditionally the former was often the main meal and the poultry or game or meat that gave the soup its character was eaten as a separate course after the liquid. A potage was altogether more delicate, perhaps a smooth cream of vegetable. The vegetables in la soupe - the familiar root vegetables and cabbage and haricot beans - would have been grown in the kitchen garden."

So la soupe is things like bouillabaisse, which I believe is often served as two courses - the broth as a first course and the fish as a second. I don't think I have ever had bouillabaisse. You generally have to order it in advance or at least share it with somebody else, and it does look so difficult to eat without making a huge mess. And now, I think I shall never have the opportunity anyway, unless I go to some classy French restaurant here, were they to make it.

Potage, on the other hand is something that we can all have a go at. I was going to say that you just make it from what is to hand, from this and that, but I just read this in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and now I feel a bit diffident.

"those other happy-go-lucky ones [cooks] who tell you, not without pride, 'of course I never follow a recipe, I just improvise as I go along. a little bit of this, a spoonful of that ... it's much more fun really.' Well it may more fun for the cook, but is seldom so diverting for the people who have to eat his products, because those people who have a sure enough touch to invent successfully in the kitchen without years of experience behind them are very rare indeed. ... I very soon learned, from the results obtained by this method, that the soup pot cannot be treated as though it were a dustbin."

Such a different approach to Jamie, Delia et al. is it not? And so off-putting. I mean having read that you would hardly dare to do anything without precisely following a recipe would you? And yet my French housewives never used a recipe for their soup. They did indeed just make it from whatever was to hand. They had a method and they knew what went with what and it worked magnificently. It's also not something that a beginning, nervous and unconfident cook would want to hear. It's almost as bad as being confronted with an extremely complicated recipe. That said I have to say that I really learnt to cook soup from her.

She (Elizabeth David) does make some good points though.

"The ones [lessons] that are harder to assimilate are, first, in regard to the wisdom or otherwise of mixing too many ingredients, however good, to make one soup; the likelihood is that they will cancel each other out, so that although your soup may be a concentrated essence of good and nourishing ingredients, it will not taste of anything in particular. Secondly, one has to learn in the end that the creative urge in the matter of embellishments is best kept under control. If your soup is already very good of its kind, possessed of its own true taste, will it not perhaps be spoilt by the addition of a few chopped olives, of a little piece of diced sausage, of a spoonful of paprika pepper?"

I wonder would she be appalled by some examples I found online? Here is carrot soup three ways - increasingly complicated and with an increasing emphasis on appearance I think: Soupe aux Carottes NIvernaise from France: a culinary journey, A simple carrot soup from 101 Cookbooks and Turmeric carrot ginger soup with coconut almond streusel from the Cheeky Kitchen (no recipe available - the site is being maintained). Evolution from a very simple carrot soup, through a simple carrot soup with lots of decoration and a very modern sounding and complicated carrot soup - also with lots of decoration. Interesting though that the first one was called a soupe not a potage. Maybe Stephanie Alexander is not correct. I have to say I have never really noticed the distinction.

I think Elizabeth David would have preferred these two: Cauliflower soup with lemon zest from Thinking CAP and Stinging nettle and spring garlic soup from Hungry Ghost. Less is more. And stinging nettle soup is really nice. I made it once from the nettles up by the gate.


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