Well so the foodie world would have us believe. A certain nostalgia for the “peasant” way of life and in particular, “peasant” cookery began almost straight after it faded out of existence, round about the second world war. In the 50’s and 60’s Elizabeth David had us yearning after the peasant cookery of provincial France and now “the simple life”, growing-your-own ,allotments and the whole groovy Green ethos is very much in vogue. I suspect the reality of “growing-your-own” was rather a different kettle of carrots for our blessed ancestors; for the majority of them it was a necessity, rather than a novelty. The hallowed Grandmother had much to say on the subject-for her growing her own veg and fruit was the only way of ensuring a regular supply of quality fresh produce to cook and use in the kitchen-but it was a daunting task and the bounty of her sustained efforts met with little enthusiasm. In fact her ungrateful brood (including my mother) still tease her about her ingenious methods of incorporating apples into almost every meal (the apple trees at her home were particularly vigorous). Stewed apples with cream was a staple pudding; apple charlotte or crumble on days when she felt amiably disposed, pork with apples, baked apples, apple jelly, steamed apple sponge….the list was endless. For me, this seems like heaven (see earlier purple-prose on my love of the apple) but for my mother and her siblings it was dull and monotonous. (This is by no means a reflection of my Grandmother’s culinary skills-her stewed apple is the epitomy of apply-appleness; each slice stays entire, slightly burnished gold, semi-caramelised, semi-poached in demerara syrup, served as always with the thickest, yellowest jersey cream which she buys locally. I digress…..)
For those who were lucky enough to have fresh, home-grown produce every day, the novelty certainly wore off….just as for those mythical European “peasants” whose cuisine we now imitate and hanker after, pasta or coq-au-vin was just an everyday, filling and hearty meal. The beauty of Italian cuisine is centred in this rustic “peasant” fare- pasta, polenta, semolina, beans and soup. And when it’s done properly it is, to my mind, some of the best food in the world. There’s nowt wrong with a Great British Shepherd’s Pie (aforementioned Grandmother makes the best of course)-but when it comes to simple, rustic national fare, i’m an Italian at heart. So here follows a recipe for a staple Italian “peasant” soup-Ribollita. Just the thing for a cold autumn evening. Viva Italia! And ciao Berlusconi – a man “so evil, that every time he smiles an angel dies of ghonnorhea” (Dylan Moran).
Ingredients (makes a big pot full)
1 carrot, peeled and fine-diced
2 red onions-peeled and fine-diced
2 sticks of celery fine-diced
3 cloves garlic sliced
sprig of thyme , couple of leaves of sage and a bay leaf (if you have them handy)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (the good stuff-it’s the key flavour)
Cavolo nero(Italian black cabbage) or kale, shredded
Beans (i used fresh Borlotti, but cannellini soaked overnight/from a tin will work fine)
Old stale sourdough
The key to this soup is taking your time. As with any soup, if you put enough love into the base, you cant go far wrong with the rest. The base (soffrito in Italian or mirepoix in French) is the diced veg that you saute at the beginning. The longer you saute this for (on gentle heat) the more flavour you will get. So, start off with your pot on a medium-low heat, pour in a generous slug of olive oil, then pour in onions, garlic, celery and carrot. Put the lid on and saute, stirring occasionally, for about 30-40 mins. Now add your beans (only if using dried and soaked beans, drain them and add them now-if using tinned, drain them and add them later…). Pour in about one and half pints of water, 3 or 4 whole plum tomatoes from a tin, and leave the whole lot to simmer for about 45 mins. If you are using tinned beans, rinse them and add them in half-way through as they are already cooked. If you used uncooked beans, check that they now are cooked, then season with salt and pepper. Blanch your cabbage in salted boiling water (discard tough stems if using cavolo nero) and add to the soup pot. Tear up 3 slices of stale sourdough (discard the crust) and put into the pot. Mush it all up with a spoon, cook for another few minutes, then add a healthy slug of your very best olive oil and serve. Simple, frugal and delicious!