Mid-autumn in Melbourne coincided with a burst of hot weather, which meant fresh borlotti beans were in my green grocer’s at the same time I was contemplating how to cook summery meals. My thoughts turned to soup. Now normally, in Melbourne’s peak temperatures, the only soup that attracts is a cold and garlicky gazpacho. But my second favourite warm weather soup is soup au pistou. This is basically a pretty bland soup based around (ideally fresh) shelled beans, some pasta, potatoes and summer vegetables (zucchini, green beans) which is enlivened by a spoonful of pistou (which, as we’ll see, is just the Provençal version of pesto) stirred into bowls at the last minute.
I was first introduced to this soup in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, but have more recently followed a recipe of Patricia Wells, which I adapt below.
The success of the soup as a summer tonic lies of course in the pistou. And the secret of a good pistou is a mortar and pestle, not a food processor. Patience Gray in her remarkable book Honey from a Weed has a whole introductory chapter on ‘chopping and pounding’. There she writes: ‘Pounding fragrant things – particularly garlic, basil, parsley – is a tremendous antidote to depression…Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being – from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated’.
Before I get to the recipe, I just want to reiterate what a peculiar — in a good way — cookbook Gray’s book is. She co-wrote an earlier cookbook, published as a Penguin paperback, with Primrose Boyd in the 1950s, called Plats du Jour, then she absconded to Europe to make a life with a Flemish sculptor for the next forty or fifty years, living in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia: in effect, chasing the marble that a sculptor needs.
One remarkable aspect of her book lies in the subtitle: ‘Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cylcades and Apulia’. Not only does the word ‘fasting’ rarely appear in connection with contemporary cookbooks, but here it is given priority of place before the word ‘feasting’.
Many contemporary cookbooks on regional cuisines are embedded in some sort of narrative — explicit or implied — about The Quest for Authenticity. It is not enough to know that we are going to use olive oil in a recipe; we need to be told that the dish was originally tasted on a hiking trip near Carrara, using oil obtained from the first pressing from the gnarled trees of a domestic grove of a poor but honest Italian farmer and so on. This Quest for Authenticity along with a persistent nostalgia coalesces to give us the Mediterranean Diet as Culinary Pastoral. Yet what we today evoke as the Mediterranean Diet probably bears little relation to how most Mediterraneans ate for most of history. Up until relatively recently, the Mediterranean diet was one of long seasons of malnutrition, interspersed with episodes of famine.
Gray’s book is one of the few Mediterranean cookbooks to acknowledge this in its overall approach. She captures what the anthropologist Carole Counihan, writing about rural Sardinia, observed when referring to an ‘iron clad ethic of consumption: daily consumption took place within the family and was parsimonious; festive consumption took place within society at large and was prodigal’, there being a ‘rhythmic oscillation between these two different modes’.
So yes, Gray’s cookbook-cum-travel memoir does play the authenticity card, but without the reassurance and comfort and warm fuzziness that comes with most books of this genre. At one stage she watches, and describes for the reader, a Greek islander woman’s method of cooking fresh haricot beans into a soup over an outdoor fire. When Gray takes some of the surplus soup to a neighbour, the neighbour ‘believing them to be cooked by me and foreign in consequence, later threw them to the pig’. The Mediterranean diet, like Tolstoy’s ideal of love, can be a harsh and dreadful thing.
Anyhow, the promised recipe for La Soupe au Pistou:
If you have access to fresh borlotti beans, buy half a kilo which will come down to around 200 – 250 g shelled beans.
Warm some oil in a saucepan with chopped garlic and some thyme sprigs, parsley sprigs and a bay leaf or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute or two. Add a litre of hot water and cover and simmer for around ten minutes.
In another pot, start the soup: oil, onions and garlic sweated over a low heat. Add chopped carrots, chopped potatoes and again more bay leaves, some thyme and parsley sprigs. Saute all this for ten minutes or so, stirring regularly, to build depth of flavour.
Then add the beans and their cooking liquid to the vegetables with some diced zucchini and some tomatoes (fresh or from a tin, whatever’s at hand) and another litre of water. Simmer gently until all is cooked. Add some small pasta shapes and cook until the pasta is cooked.
Serve the soup hot, passing both pistou and grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese to swirl into the soup
For pesto or pistou, I’d go with a cup of basil leaves pounded together with a tablespoon of pine nuts, a clove of garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of olive oil. Enjoy.