"a first-class shell-fish soup, reminiscent of the bisques of sophisticated restaurants, but not so cloying and, incidentally, a good deal less hard work, as it involves no pounding of shells and sieving of lobster butter; it is smooth and sufficiently thick without needing the addition of cream." Elizabeth David
I adore fish soup. When we go to France - well the south, one of the first things I try to find in a restaurant is fish soup. It's such a pain to make at home, so I was interested to see this recipe and Elizabeth David's words.
Uninspired again, I am turning to my 'first recipe' solution to writer's block - the next in my Elizabeth David collection - French Country Cooking. It's a small book and look my copy cost me the lordly sum of 3s and 6d, back in 1965. Well my copy is the 1965 reprint of the revised edition. It was first published many years before though - in 1951. I think it was her second book. No glossy photographs of course, but rather lovely line drawings, by John Minton, that are so evocative of French country kitchens. I have seen kitchens like this - and more modern ones too of course.
I looked John Minton up and found a brief and rather sad tale. An English artist who studied in France, taught in London whilst continuing to paint and to illustrate books - this being just one of them. However, according to Wikipedia:
"In the mid-1950s, Minton found himself out of sympathy with the abstract trend that was then becoming fashionable, and felt increasingly sidelined. He suffered psychological problems, self-medicated with alcohol, and in 1957 died by suicide."
A quote of his:
"We're all awash in a sea of blood, and the least we can do is wave to each other"
inspired the title of a music album by a group called Van der Graaf Generator. A gloomily appropriate quote for our times really. The portrait at left is a self-portrait. Nothing at all to do with food really, but that's what is so constantly interesting about writing these little pieces. The things you find and learn along the way. He certainly doesn't look happy does he?
He presumably is responsible for the cover design of the book as well as the illustrations within.
This particular book is dedicated "To my mother", I notice, which somehow I found remarkable, so I looked up her origins, which confirmed my feeling. Her parents were aristocratic, her father a politician, and her mother very distant. Elizabeth and her sisters were sent away to boarding school at an early age. And there would have been no cooking with mother - the cook would have done that. Eventually Elizabeth rebelled, became an actress, ran away with a married man and so on. So why would she have dedicated this book to her mother? Food for thought. And somehow rather sad. Maybe her mother had just died.
And so to my first recipe - well almost. It's name is taken not from just the main ingredient - langoustines - but also from an actual place. A small town in the Béarn region of France in the south west - close to the Basque Country that borders Spain. So Béarn has a coastline, although Orthez itself is not on the coast. And here is a photo - yet another beautiful old French town. It isn't very far from the coast however, which is probably why the soup has been named for it. Well in some ways I wonder whether it truly is because I could not find any other iterations of it. Lots of shellfish soup but not named for Orthez. Maybe it was a dish that Elizabeth David was served when visiting the local town. The local chef's take on a regional shellfish soup.
According to Elizabeth David back in 1965, langoustines
"are very plentiful in southern and south-western France, and cheap, costing two to three shillings a pound."
However she goes on to say that the same is not true in England - and it isn't true here either, so:
"it can equally well be made with a small lobster, crayfish, or even prawns."
I tried to find out what langoustines were with respect to Australia, but the closest I could find was scampi - do we have scampi or is that a British thing? Maybe rock lobster, but by then I was getting confused by the technicalities of what was what. Here is a picture though, so if you want to try this soup - which does seem to be pretty simple - get something similar.
You can find the actual recipe on Google books and that picture at the top of the page is somebody's Instagram posting of it. Basically you make a fish stock with fish, the shells of your langoustines, onion, carrots, herbs, potato, garlic, wine and lemon, and then strain it. No pushing through a sieve or anything like that - just strain it. Then you melt some onion and tomatoes with pimento or paprika - there's the touch of the Spanish borderlands - sieve them (not too difficult) into the stock. Add some rice, stir in your chopped up langoustines and finally finish with an egg liaison to thicken the soup and some lemon peel and parsley. Pretty simple really. I think you could probably blitz the tomatoes and onions with a stick blender instead of pushing them through a sieve if you wanted. The soup does take time, but it might be worth a try unless you have a husband who won't eat shellfish!
Each chapter of the book is prefaced by one of John Minton's nostalgic drawings - this is the one for the Soup chapter. It features one of those lovely soup tureens that used to be brought to the table - both at home and in restaurants - from which the soup is ladled into your plate. Whatever happened to soup tureens? I cannot remember the last time I saw one being used. Nowadays restaurants like to individually garnish your soup bowl with various things I guess, so a soup tureen would not do. But I remember when it was done, and how it gave you the opportunity to dip in for second helpings if you wished. A homely, yet elegant tradition, now gone.
It's a small, thin book as I said at the beginning, and yet it seems to have lots and lots of recipes which include most of the classics of regional French cooking. There is so much in a small space, and I'm sure I have actually made many of the dishes she describes therein. They are written up in her inimitable style - a mix of gentle encouragement and schoolmarmish disapproval. Such as this passage, which is so very much not like the cooks of today who like to stress how easy and quick everything is.
"Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple, and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed any other book, the secret of turning out first-class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love, and this book is intended for those who actually and positively enjoy the labour involved in entertaining their friends and providing their families with first-class food."
So very much not like Jamie et al. I mean you could be seriously put off. For some reason I was not. Perhaps even in 1965 she had a slightly old-fashioned tone to the with it young things of the 60s. Yes I thought I was one of them. I mean she didn't stop at the actual cooking:
"Even more than long hours in the kitchen, fine meals require ingenious organisation and experience which is a pleasure to acquire. A highly developed shopping sense is important, so is some knowledge of the construction of a menu with a view to the food in season, the manner of cooking, the texture and colour of the dishes to be served in relation to each other."
But then when you read the actual recipes you do, in fact, find that they are mostly pretty simple. And you also find that schoolmarm though she is, she also recognises that you don't have to follow a recipe absolutely to the letter. 'Even prawns' will do for a soup that is supposedly all about French langoustines from the Béarn district of France. Contrary to the expectation that she would be all about sticking to tradition she actually recognises that times change:
"In France regional cookery is very much alive, and therefore perpetually evolving. As modern transport, changing agricultural methods, and new types of kitchen stoves and utensils make old recipes out of date, so resourceful housewives and enterprising chefs invent new dishes to meet the altered circumstances and to satisfy their own creative instincts where cookery is concerned. But many of these new dishes will be based on the old traditional ones; the ingredients used will be preserved. And so it comes about that for the collectors every visit to France will produce some new dish."
It was true back in 1951 and it continues to be true now. They probably don't make this soup exactly like this in Orthez now. Indeed langoustines may have become a luxury item even there, not a cheap and delicious option for dinner in a peasant household.