The Art of Fugue Soup

If osso bucco is a com­plex sym­phony, baked alaska is a frivol­ous oper­etta and a jam dough­nut is a song by Cliff Richard, then a bowl of fine soup is a fugue. The best soup unites ingredi­ents that act beau­ti­fully together; sep­ar­ate but always enhan­cing and echo­ing each other, just like a fugue.

As I write this, I’m listen­ing to Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It’s a piece of music I can listen to end­lessly and often do. My fugue soup is the per­fect accom­pani­ment — and very sat­is­fy­ingly it’s not just fugal but frugal.

The only essen­tial thing about this soup is that it should be cooked so lightly as to keep its bright green hue — khaki veget­able soup is more requiem than fugue. But you can vary the ingredi­ents depend­ing on the sea­son. That way your soup will be both dif­fer­ent and the same, as is a fugue.

FUGUE SOUP

Serves 4

  • 2 litres veget­able stock
  • 200g pod­ded or frozen petit pois
  • 200g broad beans
  • 2 medium cour­gettes, cut into small dice
  • 200g fine asparagus
  • 1 clove gar­lic, finely sliced
  • 4 spring onions or scal­lions, chopped finely
  • Hand­ful herb flowers such as thyme or chive
  • Hand­ful chopped chives
  • Hand­ful torn basil
  • 2 table­spoons olive oil
  • Season­ing

Bring the stock to a sim­mer. Add the broad beans and blanch for 4 minutes. Remove with a slot­ted spoon and put aside in a bowl. When cool, peel off the leath­ery skins and dis­card. With the stock still at a sim­mer, add the asparagus and one of the diced cour­gettes to the liquid and blanch for 3 minutes. Remove these veget­ables too and put aside. Add the peas. Blanch for no more than 1 minute if they’re frozen and 3 minutes if they’re fresh, before remov­ing and once again put­ting to one side. Reserve the stock.

In a small fry­ing pan, gently heat the chopped spring onions and gar­lic in the olive oil. Allow to soften but not to brown. Add the second diced cour­gette to the fry­ing pan and allow it to soften too. Tip the onions, gar­lic and cour­gette mix­ture into the stock and cook gently for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add half the blanched peas and heat for a fur­ther minute. The cour­gettes and peas should still be bright green — it’s cru­cial not to over­cook the soup and thereby allow shades of com­bat trousers to enter the spec­trum. Pro­cess with a stick blender in the pan until smooth. Just before serving, tip in all the remain­ing blanched veget­ables that you put to one side at the start. Sea­son to taste. Ladle the soup into bowls in which you have placed some shred­ded fresh basil leaves. Top with a hand­ful of chopped chives and some herb flowers.

Eat while listen­ing to my favour­ite per­form­ance of The Art of Fugue, by the Rus­sian pian­ist Rustem Hayroud­inoff. It’s the ver­sion chosen by nov­el­ist Vikram Seth for the CD that he com­piled to accom­pany his exquis­ite musical novel An Equal Music. So in true fugal coun­ter­point, you can eat fugue soup, while listen­ing to the The Art of Fugue and read­ing about The Art of Fugue at the same time. What could pos­sibly be more fugal?

A feast for Karen Blixen

There are many reas­ons to admire the writer Karen Blixen and Babette’s Feast is one of them. Her story of a french woman who cre­ates a mag­ni­fi­cent din­ner on which she lav­ishes her entire for­tune is one I’ve always loved. The two eld­erly sis­ters for whom Babette cooks are aghast to learn that she has spent everything she has and will be impov­er­ished for the rest of her life. Her san­guine reply is that ‘an artist is never poor’.

Early this morn­ing I found another reason to admire Karen Blixen. Read­ing a slightly whim­sical but magical book called Writers’ Houses, I dis­covered that ‘Karen liked to com­bine old roses with cab­bage leaves, or blos­soms from her garden with wild herbs gathered in the forest behind the house. On days when she received guests, she rose at five in the morn­ing to go out and gather flowers while they were still moist with dew.’

What? I’m all for mak­ing my din­ner guests feel cher­ished, but get up at five in the morn­ing so the flowers for the table still have dew on them? I’m sorry, but you have to be jok­ing. I admit though that I was so impressed by her exact­ing aes­thetic sense that I nipped out­side and gathered some rose­mary flowers for lunch. It was already 7.30 in the morn­ing, which is prac­tic­ally mid after­noon by Karen Blixen’s stand­ards — but look, they have dew!

Herb flowers are the finest part of the plant. They hold within them a whis­per of the fla­vour of the stems from which they came; a del­ic­ate, fra­grant memory of their more upfront, bossy, herby rel­at­ives. Karen Blixen liked to include herb flowers in bou­quets. I like to include mine on my plate.

Pea, Rose­mary Flower and Crab Risotto

Serves 4

3 table­spoons olive oil

2 knobs butter

1 large onion

2 gar­lic cloves

350g risotto rice

1 large glass dry white wine

1 litre veget­able stock

200g frozen peas

100g fresh white crab meat

Hand­ful rose­mary flowers — chive flowers are good too

Melt one knob of but­ter with the olive oil over a medium heat and gently cook the chopped onion and gar­lic until soft but not brown. Add the rice and a little salt and stir until coated and glossy. Pour in the white wine and stir until fully absorbed by the rice. Mean­while heat the stock in a neigh­bour­ing pan and once the wine has been absorbed, ladle a little hot stock onto the rice and stir. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stir­ring all the while. If you run out of stock, add a little boil­ing water. Once the rice is cooked and creamy which will take about twenty minutes, add the uncooked and still frozen peas and stir them through for just a couple of minutes. Don’t over­cook them because the last thing you want are khaki-coloured peas. Stir in the second knob of but­ter, check the season­ing, put the lid on the pan and take off the heat. Divide between four warm bowls, sprinkle with rose­mary flowers and top with the white crab meat.

Pea, rose­mary flower and crab risotto is, to my mind, the per­fect lunch. I like to think the cre­ator of Babette’s Feast would have enjoyed it too, dew or no dew.