FOOD & DRINK / Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup]: Lewis Carroll hymned its praises, but it's been out of fashion for years. Michael Bateman on the delicious revival of a traditional first course

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The Independent Culture
ROAST garlic soup with lovage and celery, curried mangetout soup, salmon's head soup, soups of broad bean tops - soups of tomorrow. Soup is making a dramatic comeback as a food for our times: convenient, quick, nourishing, healthy. And, ah, cheap. And after a decade in the doldrums it's resurfacing in restaurants as well as in the home.

Soup is developing a new image, partly due to the technological revolution in chilled food and ready-made meals. It has been taken out of tins and put in cartons to produce fresher flavours than you can achieve in a can.

The best-known chilled soups are made by The New Covent Garden Soup Company. Since it began selling freshly made chilled soups five years ago, it has doubled its output every year and now has a turnover of pounds 8.5m. Selling through the major supermarkets, it provides an interesting range of 30 soups, including carrot and coriander, vichyssoise (leek and potato), spinach with nutmeg, Tuscan bean, smoked haddock chowder, and parsnip. The company plans to launch a new variety, minestrone, next month.

Marks & Spencer is also on the case, and last Wednesday launched lentil and bacon, the tenth in its range of chilled soups. In just two years the company has seen sales of chilled soup outstrip tinned soup at reckless speed. 'The potential is enormous,' M & S forecasts.

The rehabilitation of soup isn't limited to supermarkets. By strange coincidence, two very different soup cookbooks will be published within two weeks of each other next month. The Soup Book by Brigid Allen is a scholarly history, with original and unusual recipes such as kipper soup. Lindsey Bareham's A Celebration of Soup is a classic anthology of the world's great soups. There's been a dearth of interest in the subject for some 20 years. What's going on?

In the upwardly mobile 1980s, soup almost disappeared from the menu. People seemed to take their cue from the trendy restaurants of the day which removed soup in favour of dainty offerings such as deep-fried parcels of goat's cheese, or salads of wilted radicchio leaves with warm scallops. Soup's disappearance wasn't generally regretted.

'In this country,' says Derek Brown, publisher of the Michelin restaurant guide, 'soup has had a dreadful reputation for a long time. Without question, soup was seen as banal, something to eat at home, but not in a restaurant. People seem to take the view that not much talent is required to make soup, though the contrary is true.'

There are young apprentices in hotel and catering colleges now, he says, who don't know how to make soup. 'That's because they aren't required to make it in restaurants. In France, soup is more important, though it's generally now regarded as a heavy way to begin a meal.'

Today's soupmakers have set out to create a new image for the product. Caroline Jeremy, marketing director of The New Covent Garden Soup Company, says that the firm is targeting people with sophisticated palates. 'We have to be vigilant about quality,' she says. 'If texture, flavour or colour let you down, you've lost the customer for good. People are not going to be conned.'

The company is now taking on the French and Belgians, having launched its soupe d'oignon and soupe de poissons on Monoprix (France) and Delhaize, the biggest chain of delis in Belgium. 'Some eyebrows have been raised,' Caroline Jeremy says with amusement.

She trained as a cook in the La Varenne School in Paris, and then worked as a trainee at Tour d'Argent, the most famous restaurant in Paris. It must have looked good on her CV because M & S appointed her as a product 'selector'.

One of the soups she brought from Paris, Ajiaco Bogotano, chicken and potato, is now a big seller. Her flatmate's boyfriend, a Colombian, used to cook it for them. It was his mother's recipe. You can eat it as it comes, she says, or customise it by adding bits and pieces - slices of avocado, capers and so on - a new twist on the Darling-you-shouldn't-have-taken-so-much-trouble school of cooking.

Caroline Jeremy says that the options are infinite; stir in sour cream or Greek yoghurt, sprinkle the soup with finely chopped herbs such as dill and coriander, or dust with freshly roasted ground cumin or coriander.

Soup has a curious place in the history of the British diet. In fashion terms, it goes up and down like a yo-yo. To one generation it may represent the height of conspicuous consumption (witness turtle soup at the Lord Mayor's Banquet). To another it symbolises the despair of the soup kitchen and workhouse.

Soup was once much more important in our diet, being a substantial meal in itself - rich brown soups derived from the gravy dripping from spit-roasted meat, or elegant white soups made from ground chicken thickened with almonds (which is where the word blanc mange first came from).

Brigid Allen, author of The Soup Book (Papermac pounds 9.99), is a scholar- cook (by profession an archivist and historian). She points out that soups - such as pease pottage - were also an important contribution to non- meat days, albeit a monotonous one (pease pottage hot, pease pottage cold, pease pottage in the pot, nine days old). Then soup dropped out of fashion dramatically, from the 16th century right up to the late 18th century, when it returned as a grand dinner dish. It may not have been a coincidence that this was a time when the aristocracy began to hire French cooks.

'In late Victorian times soup would have been a badge of respectability,' says Brigid Allen. 'In Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, there is a descripton of Charles Ryder eating a white tasteless soup - served by his father to make a four-course meal, because his Aunt Philippa regarded a three-course dinner as a sign of the middle classes. Soup was a Cinderella dish. They had it, but it was uncherished.'

In the 1930s, the art of soupmaking sank to an all-time low and every hotel offered disgusting brown soups (so-called Brown Windsor soup) or white soups (so-called cream of this and that, but mostly flour and thinned-down milk). But after the Second World War, tinned soup represented the peak of our gastronomic desires; Britons consumed three times more than any other nation in Europe. Tomato was favourite and, according to research figures, it remained the nation's preferred first course from 1947 to 1973.

Elizabeth David, with her French Provincial Cooking, eventually set the agenda for authentic, rustic soupmaking - and complete liberation came with the electric blender. 'For me this was the breakthrough,' says Brigid Allen. 'As an archivist I've been poor all my life. So soup is the very best solution.' I look forward to trying some of her recipes, one of which includes no fewer than 70-80 roast garlic cloves; one section deals with avocados, overripe or unripe, as a thickening agent.

Lindsey Bareham's anthology, A Celebration of Soup (Papermac pounds 16.99), looks set to become required bedside reading, a rich potage of soups ancient and modern from all over the world. She has been a restaurant critic and compiler of A Guide to London's Ethnic Restaurants, so her choice has an agreeable stamp of authenticity.

AJIACO BOGOTANO

(Chicken, Potato and Sweetcorn Soup)

Serves 2-3

1 small onion

8oz diced potato

4oz grated carrot

2oz sweetcorn

4oz diced chicken

1 1/4 pts homemade chicken stock

small pot of single cream

rounded teaspoon of cumin seeds

pinch of salt and white pepper

Place the onion, two-thirds of the potato, chicken, chicken stock, salt and pepper in a large pan. Bring to boil, cover and simmer gently until potato is soft and chicken is cooked. Pour into blender and process until smooth. Return mixture to pan and add cumin seeds, carrot, sweetcorn and remaining potato. Cover and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until potato is cooked. Add cream and serve.

Garnish with the traditional Colombian combination of thin slices of avocado, capers and a dollop of sour cream. (Recipe from The New Covent Garden Soup Company.)

SMOKED HADDOCK SOUP

Cullen skink is a rich soup from the Moray Firth, home of the finnan haddock. It is quick and easy. If finnan is unavailable, use any smoked haddock, but avoid those bright yellow fish that have been dyed.

Serves 4-6

1 large onion, chopped

2oz butter

1lb finnan haddock, filleted

1pt water

8oz potato, mashed

1pt fish or light chicken stock or milk

salt and pepper

single cream

1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped

Soften the onion in the butter in a large pan, then add the fish, cut into large pieces. Cover with the water and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the fish to cool and go over it for bones before flaking the flesh off the skin. Stir the potato into the cooking liquid; when it's nicely incorporated add the stock or milk, then the fish. Simmer for 10 minutes, taste for seasoning and serve with a dash of cream and a generous sprinkling of parsley. (Recipe from Lindsey Bareham's A Celebration of Soup.)-

(Photograph omitted)

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