“Soup is cuisine’s kindest course”. Virginia Woolf.

Unlike Virginia, I have written elsewhere, and far less eloquently, on concerns borne out of an offhand relationship with soup.

In a nutshell; I was a latecomer to broth making.

An early aversion came in the form of impenetrable school-dinners, where all soups, no matter what their primary contents, were simmered into submission and buttressed with mounds of corn-starch.

This was followed by a sceptical view of anything served in a bowl and prefaced by ex-hippie chefs as ‘warming’ or ‘soothing’ invariably accompanied by torn slabs of unspecified ‘country bread’. Cranks, an organically-principled restaurant in ‘60’s London, regarded once as a hotbed of halitosis, Old Testament sandals and vegetarian fifth columnists, was a past master of such descriptors.  Homespun superlatives somehow seemed to inhabit soup territory.

At home in the store cupboard we mustn’t forget those disintegrating vegetables and unidentified animal cuts, biding their time in assorted cans. The gelatinous contents were bolstered by cosy homespun revues for the busy housewife, and broadcast by eager marketing departments at Heinz and Campbells to near universal acclaim. In the latter’s case, even Andy Warhol chose to highlight their ubiquity.

And I’m sure there’s little need to dwell upon Unilever’s early Cup-a-Soup, a khaki, silt-like dust, which surfaced (literally) around the same time. Presumably an Apollo 11 by-product that, back on earth in the realms of exciting soup making, left almost everything to be desired.

I also saw home-made soup as an impecunious lifestyle choice – not a food that could speak for itself or figure in the canon of culinary excitement – something standby, re-imagined or ready-made, condescendingly wholesome and probably supped by a mix of Gwyneth Paltrow fans and camping enthusiasts alike. A lentil-strewn, diet conscious repast, with a hint of piety on the side.

Later, in the early ’80’s, I  found myself at variance yet again. This time swimming against a tsunami of Carrot and Coriander. This Indo/Asian/French fusion soup, parading in popular Swedish Tetra packs, swiftly began to colonise every deli and high-end supermarket across the land. A cross-border incident, primarily masquerading as the hip harbinger of locally sourced dietary well being.

Well, overall I was wrong…except for the bit about Gwyneth Paltrow, oh, and the Tetra packs, but I had clearly fallen foul of Maslow’s rubric,…, if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as a nail”

Embarrassingly late in my kitchen life an unexpected soup apostacy did eventually emerge, and I began to gather fresh ingredients and build my soups from scratch. Ingredients that could be clearly identified, offer up a tangible purpose to the dish, and provide gastronomic vigour along with distinctive and traditional flavours. I discovered, with careful assembly, their capacity to form a cohesive whole without sacrificing individual characteristics. (Lest we forget, soup offers no exception to the rule that the quality of what you’re cooking can only ever reflect the quality of the ingredients you select).

This was swiftly followed by the enlightened purchase of a stick blender; a tool so fearsome that, if push ever came to shove, it could seemingly create a broth from desiccated roadkill and hewn saplings.

Now, blender in hand, and borrowing from the late Brian Clough, I could highlight my individual strikers on the one hand and blend my mid-field players on the other.

Soup-making swiftly became a culinary exemplar rather than a flagellant kitchen task – the journey now as rewarding as the arrival. Most importantly, a myriad of fine global culinary traditions belatedly started to offer me a host of first course wonders along with main course certainties. Some are clear and delicate, others robust, some veer towards a stew. Bouillabaise or Pot-au-Feu from France, Avgolemono from Greece, Borsch from Ukraine, Jewish chicken soup, Mulligatawny from India, Ramen fom Mongolia, Welsh Cawl or Scottish Cock-a-Leekie from the UK, Gai Tom Ka from Thailand, the list expands exponentially, but with Autumn vegetables being harvested just now it takes little ingenuity to re-visit an Italian stalwart in the form of Ribollita. Translation being ‘re-boiled’, which is a title that offers us a clue as to its laid back, Tuscan approach to timing. Starting out as a bean soup and slowly transforming into a main course with the addition of the bread, the soup unquestionably improves over a few days of re-heating. It also manages to entertain a flight of seasonally available vegetables once the nucleus of beans and greens are set in place (for the one above, I added diced potato and squash).

Most importantly, and with no little irony, it conflates some of the facetious folklore surrounding Cranks and its hand-woven customers with our contemporary perception of devastating farming systems, questionable animal husbandry and the ensuing threat to our increasingly vulnerable eco-system. In the necessary search for more benign ways of providing protein and carbohydrates, Ribollita is one of many such dishes springing from the vernacular traditions of Asia, Europe and North Africa, which together epitomise a potential route to more considerate culinary adventures.

I return to Michael Pollen’s 2009 publication, Food Rules, once more; “Eat food, not too much, mainly vegetables”. A contemporary epithet that could so easily have been Cranks ad campaign, over half a century ago.

Ribollita from The River Cafe Cookbook. Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (1995)

Serves 10

250g canellini or borlotti beans, preferably fresh (or dried ones soaked overnight)
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a generous glug at the end
4 medium red onions, finely diced
1 head of celery, finely diced (keep the bright yellow leaves aside)
450g carrots, finely diced
600g swiss chard or cavola nero, stems finely chopped, leaves roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 fresh red chilli, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 tins chopped plum tomatoes
2 handfuls flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

1 loaf of stale Italian ciabatta, crusts off – enough to cover the cooking pot in one even layer when sliced about 1cm thick, plus salt and freshly ground pepper

Rinse the beans, then transfer to a pot and just cover with water. Add half as much water again. Bring to the boil, then gently simmer until tender, but not mushy. Season and set aside.

Warm the olive oil until hot, but not smoking. Add the onion, celery, carrot, chard/cavola nero (stalks only), garlic, chilli and bay leaves. Season generously, then fry for 20 minutes, stirring every so often, until lightly caramelised.

Add the parsley and celery leaves, then fry for another 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their liquid. Cook for about 20 minutes over a low heat. The tomato liquid should be absorbed by the other vegetables. Add the beans and their cooking liquid. Simmer over a low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the soup comes together. Stir in the chard or cavola nero leaves and simmer for a couple more minutes. Adjust the seasoning.

Cover the soup with bread. Pour just enough boiling water over it all to moisten the bread. Generously drizzle with oil and remove the pot from the heat. Set aside for 10 minutes, then stir to combine. It should be thick and delicious. Season again, if needed. Drizzle with oil, perhaps scatter with Parmesan, then serve.

Wine thoughts

For those of you may have read my other wine favourites, you will know of my fondness for Cabernet Franc when we look to partner vegetable dishes. But I make an exception here, as this wonderful soup’s heartland is deep in rural Tuscany. So I have no qualms in opening a delicate, floral Chianti Classico (made from the oft overlooked Sangiovese grape) which after its telltale violet bouquet, offers a balance of bright fruit, a deep earthy core and a brisk, refreshing acidity, all of which are so recognisable as the region’s signature style.