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.


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?

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remember my grandpa announcing proudly that he’d decorated the walls of his small front room with four wildly different wallpapers and picked out the woodwork in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhibition A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition is vast and overwhelming and throbs with wild colours and patterns. It’s generous, showy and utterly independent in spirit and yet it’s meticulous and somehow dogged too – qualities that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walking through Oxford’s University Parks later that day, I felt somehow let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turning 180 degrees so that the sun was shining on the trunks, the colours jumped into life. I got a whole new perspective. And if that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hockney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eating a riot of colour. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice – full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yellow beetroots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Wholefoods, along with a silver foil hickory smoker from Finland for £2.29.

I have a disastrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evacuate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey flavour, this bag will disappoint you. But for a delicate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evacuation plan, this bag works fine.


Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Blackberry vinegar – I bought mine from Womersley Foods
  • 1 disposable foil smoker – bought from Wholefoods for £2.29

Wash the beetroot, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beetroot, onions, whole head of garlic and thyme in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, season and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a further 45 minutes. Remove the package from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting open the foil. Peel the beetroot and slice into thinnish circles.

Make a salad dressing from a little olive oil, blackberry vinegar and seasoning and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beetroot, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the balsamic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of baking, the garlic will be rich, sweet and unctuous – perfect when spread on a little sourdough bread.

 I ate my riotous salad and bread with beetroot soup that I made by baking beetroots and apples for an hour and blending with vegetable stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his colour schemes but exceptionally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.

Still Life with Soup

Few things give me as much pleasure as a still life painting. Giorgio Morandi, Alice Mumford, Ben Nicholson, Edouard Vuillard all do something magical to a jug of milk, a white vase and a pot of jam and turn the mundane and everyday into something magnificent. I even like the term itself – ‘still life’ – capturing as it does the glories of sitting peacefully and simply looking at something for a minute, a day, a month, forever. Poor old Italy and France have been cheated out of the true glories of the still life – their translations for the term are ‘la natura morta’ and ‘la nature morte’. ‘Dead nature’ is a terrible definition and misses the point completely.

Still life, as well as being a glorious art-form, is the perfect synonym for soup. Eat a bowl of home-made soup and life will stand still for just a moment, as you savour the glories in the bowl. I’ve written before about the joys of soup, and few can beat this one. Its ingredients are like the components of a Vuillard painting – until they’re combined you have no idea how perfectly they go together. And don’t be put off by the length of this soup’s name. It’s quick, easy and effortless, unlike for example Osso Bucco which has a short snappy title but takes forever to make.


Serves 4

For the soup

  • 1 butternut squash
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • Seasoning
  • 2 white onions
  • 1 scant dessert spoon fennel seeds
  • Olive oil and knob of butter
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, about 3 cm in length
  • 1 litre good vegetable stock

Wash the butternut squash – you’re going to be using the skin. Chop it into medium-sized pieces, de-seed it but don’t bother to peel it. Put the pieces in a baking tray and sprinkle with the maple syrup and a little salt and pepper. Dot with small pieces of butter and  a small quantity of olive oil. Bake in a moderate oven at about 170 degrees C for about 40 minutes until the squash is soft and slightly caramelised. While the squash is cooking, chop the onions finely and put in a pan with the fennel seeds, some salt and pepper, a little olive oil and a knob of butter. Cook at the gentlest possible heat for about 30 minutes, stirring every now and again. The onions should be a rich, golden brown, but not burnt. About five minutes before the squash is ready, finely grate the peeled ginger into the onions.

Tip the squash, skin and all, into the onions, add the litre of vegetable stock, bring to a simmer and liquidise with a stick blender.

For the spiced butter

  • 20g unsalted butter
  • Good pinch smoked sea salt (ordinary sea salt is fine too)
  • Half teaspoon chilli powder
  • Half teaspoon smoked paprika
  • A few fresh coriander leaves

Make sure the butter is soft enough to mix in with the other ingredients. Snip the coriander finely with scissors and combine everything well. Put the butter in a piece of cling film, roll it into a small sausage about 2.5 cms in diameter and put in the fridge for 15 minutes or so to harden. Serve the soup with a disc of spiced butter, a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds and a sprig of mint or coriander. Sit, eat and ‘have a minute’ as my Granny used to say. It’s still life in a bowl.

Spinach and Sorrel Soup, The Sonnet

Soup is one of the best foods ever invented, so why are most of the references to it in literature unashamedly dismal? Soup is usually a metaphor for hard times, dour landladies and dubious chefs. The 20th century American author Margaret Halsey captured the ‘sad soup genre’ perfectly when she said that the broth she was served ‘tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.’

So here comes the fightback. This spinach and sorrel soup should have a sonnet written about it. Or a novel in which the protagonist is restored to good health and good fortune after just one spoonful. It’s the rich, deep, full-throttle green of a vintage racing car and gives instant vigour and zip to anyone who so much as looks at it. 

Sorrel is a beautiful herb,  especially this red-veined variety, but it’s often hard to find in the shops. I have a friend who keeps an allotment purely so she can maintain her sorrel supplies. But this week I spotted an entire tray of potted sorrel in my local shop, with reduced  price stickers attached.  So I rescued the lot.

You may know by now that I love picnics and long walks. My mum used to put a flask of soup in one pocket of her coat and hot cheese, tomato and mustard rolls in the other and we would set off. Spinach and sorrel soup would be the perfect walking companion. Make it, eat it and start writing in rhyming couplets.

Spinach and Sorrel Soup

Serves 4

1 floury potato, chopped into smallish, even-sized chunks

I medium onion, cut into similar sized pieces

1 clove garlic, sliced

1 knob butter

500ml vegetable stock

400g fresh spinach, coarsely chopped

40 sorrel leaves – the sorrel gives a delicate lemon background flavour, but if you can’t find sorrel, add an extra 50g or so of spinach and add a little grated lemon zest

Handful of micro herbs such as coriander and red amaranth to sprinkle over at the end – or just some chopped chives

Spoonful of cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a pan and cook the onion, garlic and potato together gently for five minutes or so, without colouring them. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer for around 15 minutes until the potato is soft. 

Add 200g of the spinach and all the sorrel leaves, season with salt and pepper and cook for a further five minutes. The sorrel leaves give a delicate lemon background flavour, but if you can’t find sorrel, just add an extra 50g or so of spinach instead and a little grated lemon zest. Take the pan off the heat and add the remaining uncooked spinach. Blend immediately and adjust the seasoning. Serve with a drizzle of cream, if using, and a sprinkling of herbs. Adding half the spinach at the end keeps the magnificent deep emerald colour of the soup. 

DIY Miso Soup

I’ve argued for years that if children’s books can have illustrations, why shouldn’t novels for adults? When Jonathan Safran Foer published Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I felt vindicated. It has drawings, typographical experiments, photographs, a flip-book …and it’s magnificent.

Safran Foer has just outdone himself. I’ve spent the evening reading his latest work Tree of Codes. It’s a startling and physically beautiful book, a reworking of Bruno Schulz’ 20th Century story The Street of Crocodiles. Even the new title is a variation on the original – slice ten letters from The Street of Crocodiles and Tree of Codes is the result.

The die-cut book is a work of delicacy and ingenuity. Turn a page too briskly and it will tear. Words glimmer through the gaps so that each reading of the novel produces a new story.

It’s a novel that expects effort, but the reward is that it becomes one’s own. As I explored Tree of Codes this evening, I ate a bowl of DIY miso soup, something I’ve been eating most days since January 1st. DIY soup demands that the eater works at it, creates it at the table. And just like Tree of Codes, it’s different every time.


Serves 2

20g dried shitake mushrooms

2 tablespoons miso paste

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoon fish sauce

1 litre water

2 cm chunk of fresh ginger

2 cm length of lemongrass

2 nests of fine egg noodles

Half fresh red chilli

Handful coriander leaves

2 spring onions or scallions

2 cloves finely chopped garlic

200g raw King prawns

Pour a little boiling water over the mushrooms and put to one side. Peel the ginger and grate it into a saucepan large enough to hold 1 litre of water. Chop the lemongrass roughly and add to the pan, along with the miso paste, and the soy and fish sauces. Bring to a gentle simmer, take off the heat and allow the flavours to develop.

Finely chop the chillis and spring onions and put into two serving bowls. Put the washed coriander leaves in a third bowl. Rinse the softened mushrooms and add to a fourth bowl. Line these up on the table with a serving spoon in each. Place the uncooked noodle nests into two soup bowls, bring the soup back up to a simmer. Strain it and divide equally between the two bowls, pouring it over the noodles to soften them while you cook the prawns. Saute the prawns in a little olive oil with the finely chopped garlic. When the prawns are pink, tip them into a fifth serving bowl and take to the table. By this time the soup liquor will have cooked the noodles. Just add generous helpings of all or some of the extra ingredients to your soup and start to eat.

I made DIY soup for twelve people yesterday and the choosing and the eating made a simple meal into an event. It would have been even better if all twelve of us had had our own copy of Tree of Codes to read aloud from as we ate.

Celeriac Soup with Apple and Chestnut

Reading Paul Auster’s novel The Brooklyn Follies, I collided with a disturbing idea. According to Auster’s thwarted character Tom, we’ve entered a new era, an era of the ‘post-past age.’ Tom elaborates that the ‘post-past’ means ‘The now. And also the later. But no more dwelling on the then.’

Could that be true? Are we so dislocated from anything that’s gone before that we have no choice but to stare fixedly ahead and wait for what’s coming? What kind of cynic do you think I am? Of course I don’t agree with that notion and neither, I suspect, do you. At this time of year you need only go to a child’s nativity play, or flick through an old cookery book to find the recipe that your mother swore by for Christmas turkey, or attend a Remembrance Day service, or go to a Thanksgiving party, as I did last week. And then you will know that the post-past is a fiction dreamed up by people who favour the smart remark above the truth.

And just in case you need a little more persuading, here is my recipe for celeriac and chestnut soup, a divinely fragrant concoction that I first ate when I was a child. As far as I’m concerned, the post-past is dead. Long live the pre-present….

Celeriac Soup With Apple and Chestnut

Serves 6

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 floury potato

1 medium onion

1 garlic clove

I whole celeriac, peeled and cut into chunks

I litre vegetable stock

100 ml double cream

100 ml full cream milk

100 g vacuum packed cooked chestnuts

2 Granny Smith apples

Truffle oil

Cut the potato, onion, 1 apple and celeriac into chunks and slice the garlic. Soften the onion gently in the olive oil for five minutes, and then add the potato, garlic, apple and celeriac. Don’t allow the vegetables to brown. Season and continue to cook gently for another five minutes and then add the hot vegetable stock and simmer for twenty minutes. Puree with a stick blender before stirring in the cream and milk. Reheat the soup, but don’t let it boil. Adjust the seasoning. Break the chestnuts into smallish pieces and saute briefly in a little olive oil. Cut the second apple into the finest julienne – (don’t peel the apple – the flash of green at one end is good). Serve the soup with a scattering of chestnuts, a sprinkling of apple and a circular drizzle of truffle oil. Eat your soup like the Roman god Janus, facing backwards and forwards at the same time. And let’s have no more talk of the post-past.

Poems, Roses and Butterbean Soup

I was entranced to hear that the British poet Ian McMillan used to tuck a poem into his children’s packed lunches before school each morning. I’d pay good money for someone to do that for me, although I did once have a boyfriend who used to put a rose in my handbag every time I left the house. That was, I suppose, a little bit of poetry in itself.

Today the frost has finally come and I have a yearning to make butterbean and peanut soup, a recipe my mother used to make. She would stand at the Aga stirring the soup with the bread knife because she thought it was the only utensil anyone ever really needs. It cuts, it stirs and it spreads she would say, and that pretty much covers most things – unless you have a penchant for piped potatoes which I really don’t.

I’m going to eat my soup reading Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley. And I might even tuck a copy of it into my own handbag afterwards.

Butterbean and Peanut Soup

Serves 6

500g dried butterbeans

1 litre vegetable stock

6 tablespoons crunchy peanut butter

Salt and pepper


Soak the butterbeans in 1.5 litres of cold water for 24 hours. Drain and rinse well and then put them in a pan with another 1.5 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil and let the beans bubble briskly for 10 minutes, skimming the water as you go. After ten minutes reduce the heat and cook gently for another ten minutes. Tip away the water and replace with the vegetable stock – Marigold Bouillon powder is good for this – and bring to a gentle boil. Add the peanut butter and continue to cook gently for an hour, adding more water if you need to.

Adjust the seasoning at the end and serve with a scattering of chopped chives. This, I have to confess, is as much an aesthetic as a taste thing. Beige soup needs a little colour in its life, just like we do.