In which we discover that without soup there would be no restaurants, that sharing can be joyful and that meeting a friend from the circus in an underground cask beer bar is one of the few things worth leaving a Finnish meal for.
An Oldie but A Goodie
So what did you think? Its an old story and you may well have heard it before but I thought in the current environment it might strike a chord. If it doesn’t its still a really good story even if the moral does smack you round the face rather than gently whisper in your ear. I added the storytelling, its how I imagined the traveller who is good with words might behave.
Its very rare that a storyteller isn’t welcome and it certainly wouldn’t be the first storyteller who paid for dinner with his tales. The whole idea of everyone contributing resulting in something joyful rather than everyone hoarding what they have and no-one having enough to be happy is something that resounds strongly with me at the moment.
A Tale of Unknown Origin
So where is this tale from? No-one knows exactly, it doesn’t appear in any of the formal collections that appeared during the 19th Century. It is however graded all on its own as ATU1548 The Stone Soup so it obviously became a folktale even if it didn’t come from the oral tradition (which we don’t know it didn’t). There are various versions across Europe but sometimes the stone is a nail. The variations seem to be whether it is a clever man persuading a village or persuading a miserly woman instead. Sometimes the man is a tramp, sometimes a soldier, sometimes a priest, sometimes a pilgrim.
The earliest original version seems to come from the writer Mademoiselle Noyer in 1720. We don’t know however whether she was told the story, whether she read it in a book or whether she made it up herself. All versions after this do seem very polished but it seems odd that if it was a popular oral tale that it wouldn’t appear in any of the big collections.
Cauldrons Aren’t Toys
Did you know that the Dagda of the Tuatha de Danann was once forced by his enemies, the Fomor, to eat a huge trough full of soup/stew. They took his cauldron before a great battle, and filled it with four hundred gallons of milk, meal, and fat, along with goats, sheep, and pigs an boiled them. He had to comply due to the obligations of hospitality but surprisingly managed to triumph. Boiling things also seems to be popular with Ogres too. The are always wanting to boil human bones for dinner which sounds like broth to me even if a very unappealing one.
Drowning in Alphabet Soup
Soup is so ubiquitous it feels like it should have its own folklore and perhaps it does in the amount of proverbs and quotes about soup, either literal or metaphorical. Have you ever been ‘in the soup’, ‘drowning in alphabet soup’ or even in a ‘pea souper’? Or maybe you agree with the following:
“A soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.”Willa Cather
“Soup is the song of the hearth… and the home.”Louis P. De Gouy
“Soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.”Auguste Escoffier
A Little Etymology for a Change
Even if you don’t feel that proverbs aren’t folklore there is definitely some folklore in the etymological origin of the word. Here are three alternatives:
It goes back to an unrecorded post-classical Latin verb suppare soak’, which was borrowed from the same prehistoric German root (sup-) as produced in English sup and supper. From it was derived the noun suppa, which passed into Old French as soupe. This meant both piece of bread soaked in liquid’ and, by extension, broth poured onto bread.’ It was the latter strand of the meaning that entered English in the seventeenth century. Until the arrival of the term soup, such food had been termed broth or pottage. It was customarily served with the meat or vegetable dishes with which it had been made, and (as the derivation of soup suggest) was poured over sops of bread or toast (the ancestors of modern croutons) –An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 316)
Our modern word “soup” derives from the Old French word sope and soupe. The French word was used in England in the in the form of sop at the end of the Middle Ages and, fortunately, has remained in the English language in its original form and with much its original sense. We say “fortunately” because it is clear that nowadays a “sop” is not a “soup.” The distinction is important. When cooks in the Middle Ages spoke of “soup,” what they and the people for whom they were cooking really understood was a dish comprising primarily a piece of bread or toast soaked in a liquid or over which a liquid had been poured. The bread or toast was an important, even vital, part of this dish. It was a means by which a diner could consume the liquid efficiently by sopping it up. –Early French Cookery, D. Eleanor Scully & Terence Scully [University of Michigan Press:Ann Arbor] 1995 (p. 102)
Soup. The most general of the terms which apply to liquid savory dishes…Similar terms in other languages include the Italian zuppa, the German Suppe, Danish suppe, etc. Of the various categories of the dish which may be eaten, soup can certainly be counted among the most basic…Its role…as an appetizing first course should be viewed against the historical background, in which soups with solids in them were a meal in themselves for poorer people, especially in rural areas…”Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 735)
I looked up the Oxford English Dictionary definition and I’ll skip to the short version and say that they’re not sure, sort of a mixture of my three previous quotes.
Imagine a Soup So Bad You’d Prefer Death
So that’s it for folklore of soup generally outside of the folklore of specific soups. I simply don’t have the room here to examine them individually if you think that even Vichyssoise has 3 different origin stories but maybe they will come up in future blogs. If you know of any apart from Herodotus quoting a contemporary Greek comment that the Spartan Black Soup was so vile that its unsurprising they would rush toward death as it meant they wouldn’t have to drink any more soup. I’m paraphrasing but it does provide a different perspective
As Old As Cooking Itself
So we will move away from folklore and towards history and look at where soup came from. Its very ancient, the history of soup is probably as old as the history of cooking. Anthropologists disagree on the date either 80,000 B.C.E by the Neanderthals/Cro-Magnons or Neolithic man later around 10,000 B.C.E. What we do know is that as cooking in water was usually a much better, more nutritious and fuel efficient way of cooking that we started it long before we invented pots. I find that fascinating.
Cooking without Pots
How did we do it then? Two different ways apparently, the first was by using animal skins or intestines and being careful not to burn them from underneath. The second way was either using animal skins or digging ears troughs/hollowing out cauldrons of stone and then adding in hot stones to keep the water boiling/ simmering. Its stone soup, well sort of anyway. Herodotus comments on the Scythians cooking meat in an animals stomach by burning the bones. There is still evidence of hot stone cooking in Ireland and Scotland into the 17th Century.
Anyway to speed things up, first we made ceramic pots then we invented metal work and made metal pots so everyone could easily make soup over a fire. There is evidence that cooking liquid based meals over fire with cereal/pulse or rice and vegetables happened across the world in all cultures.
Fast Forward to the 17th Century
Although we’ve been eating what we now call soup for a very long time we have only really been calling it that since the 17th Century. Previously to that it was called potage or porridge and was probably thicker as a one pot meal or called a broth. We also used to cook meat in liquid and then have the resulting broth separately as well as using stock to cook vegetables, a grain and some meat.
So that brings us to two more important questions ‘how do you tell the difference between soup and stew’ and what is the difference between broth and stock. The simplest answer to the first would be which course are you eating it for? If its a main course it is much more likely to be stew, if its a starter then I’d go with soup. In the West at least. The simplest answer to the second is probably could you have it on its own as it is is, if the answer is yes then its broth if not its stock. The general principle is that stock is a base for other ingredients.
Soup – A Definition
I’ve also just realised that we have yet defined soup – according to the OED ‘A liquid food prepared by boiling, usually consisting of an extract of meat with other ingredients and seasoning.Frequently with defining words, as fish, giblet, gravy, hare, ox-tail, pea, turtle soup; clear, thick soup; etc.’ The first reference is in 1653. As I mentioned when we considered the etymology of the word we were more concerned with sop of bread and soup didn’t become the generally accepted term until the 17th century when French influences in food became stronger on Charles II return to the throne.
Through the medieval period and the renaissance they were just as likely to be called a potage or broth. The earliest English cookery book the Forme of Cury has several recipes including one for eel broth and rabbits in clear broth. Robert May’s Accomplisht Cook in 1685 is still full of potage and broth recipes which are familiar to us as soup recipes. However the English & French Cook, published 11 years previously references soops not just potages. However Gervase Markham in The English Housewife is still using the terminology of broths and potages.
A Posh/Poor Divide
Soup changed from the 17th Century, taking on more specific types of soup for the wealthier families with more labour intensifying vegetable purees and cream soups and refined consommés whereas for the labouring families the more traditional soup continued to reign supreme. Soup was also much used as a charitable service to the poor and sick from the middle and upper classes. There was even guidance on how to make soup for the poor (take my advice and don’t look, it will make every socialist hackle you have in your body rise and demand justice) which sounds horrible mostly.
There were also many soup recipes for ailments which do sound more appealing however the were a bit literal in their interpretation of food as medicine. I’d like to point out that it isn’t, medicine I mean. I’m the first person to say that a nutritionally rich, varied balanced diet is important for both physical and mental health; if you are privileged enough be able to achieve that but its still not medicine. Medicine is medicine otherwise why would we bother making it and working out all those pesky doses etc.
Anyway I’m climbing down from my high horse to say that some of the other changes were technological too. They worked out how to dry, dehydrate and can soup making it an important item for armies, explorers and travellers alike. Its also useful for those of us who in the days of offices kept a cup a soup in their locker in case of emergencies. Dried soup and canned soup was also sold as an excellent alternative to home cooking for busy mothers. One last fact, without soup there would be no restaurants. Its true, the first restaurants took their name from the ‘restoratifs’ soups that they would serve to their delicately unwell customers in Paris. It eventually became the name of the place that you sought these dishes from, rather than the dishes themselves. They also served little custards too.
So that’s a canned (haha) history of soup. I imagine you either really fancy some soup now or you feel you never want any again. I love soup most kinds really. Heinz tomato with cheese toasties is what I have when I’m under the weather and feel sorry for myself. However I really love home made lentil and pancetta as well as roasted pumpkin with truffle oil and mushroom, lemon & garlic. I also love onion soup with melting cheese croutes in the winter and gazpacho and Lithuanian pink soup (ask me on social media and I’ll explain) on a hot summer day.
The only one I’m really not keen on is carrot and I’m not even sure why. The best soups have ever had have usually been on holiday or in restaurants of other cuisines. This is true of today’s recipe which I tried in a traditional family style restaurant up a side street in Helsinki on a cold April night. It was amazing! We didn’t want to leave but had to meet a friend from a circus in an underground craft beer bar which is another story completely.
This is a salmon, potato and dill soup and it is so simple and so good. I’d recommend everyone to try it. Finnish food is severely underrated and I want to champion it.
Lohikeitto (Finnish Salmon & Potato Soup)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 Onion, finely chopped
4-5 Potatoes (buy a firm variety as they need to retain their shape through cooking)
1.25 litres chicken/vegetable stock (made with decent quality cube is fine)
500g Fresh Salmon Fillet cut into decent sized chunks
100-200 ml Double Cream
1 pack Fresh Dill (25g pack), finely chopped
2 Bay Leaves
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of pepper
- Cut the potatoes roughly into 1-inch cubes, and keep in water to prevent discolouration
- In a large saucepan, simmer the chopped onions in the butter over medium heat until soft
- Add peeled and diced potatoes and then enough water to just cover the potatoes. Turn up the heat to high, cover the saucepan with a lid, bring to a boil and cook the potatoes until they are just soft, adjusting the heat down as necessary (around 15-20 minutes).
- Add the cubed salmon to the pot and cook until it is mostly opaque (this will take about 5 minutes, if that). Do not stir the soup so as not to break up the salmon
- Add the stock and cream, along with a sprinkling of salt and pepper to taste,Cook for 5-10 minutes.
- Take off the heat and stir in the fresh dill
- Serve with rye bread and butter
- You can thicken this with a little cornflour and water if you like a thicker soup but I prefer it without.
Soup Through the Ages: A Culinary History with Period Recipes/Victora R. Rumble
Soup: A Global History/Janet Clarkson
An Exaltation of Soups/Satricia Solley
Alan Davidson and Tom Jaine (2014). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press
The Accomplisht Cook – Robert May (1685)
The English and French cook describing the best and newest ways of ordering and dressing all sorts of flesh, fish and fowl, whether boiled, baked, stewed, roasted, broiled, frigassied, fryed, souc’d, marrinated, or pickled; with their proper sauces and garnishes: together with all manner of the most approved soops and potages used, either in England or France -by ‘several approved cooks of London & Westminster (1674)
Feature image: Thanks to Scott Webb @scottwebb for making this photo available freely on Unsplash