The supper was delicious. There was home-made crusty bread, hot onion soup, delicious rabbit stew, baked apples in a silver dish, honey, butter the colour of marigolds, a big blue jug of warm mulled claret, and hot roasted chestnuts folded in a napkin.
The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge
There are days when food needs to provide pure comfort. Anxiety-inducing, unsettling days, when it feels like nothing is certain or guaranteed. This week, I had one of those days.
I have spent my whole life adhering to schedules - at school, at university, at work. I am happy with schedules. They provide stability and reassurance, that I am in the place I need to be, doing the thing I need to be doing. This year, I have started to live a life without them. Though I have some work hours, and some meetings, I am spending most of my time working from my desk, writing a book. My day to day life is, all of a sudden, completely in my own hands.
On days when I struggle with this, I turn to the kitchen - I need something to keep my hands busy and my mind clear. It's also important that it's foolproof; complex patisserie should be reserved for those days when I feel on top of the world. What I am looking for is something to chop, or knead, or stir. A handful of ingredients, and minimal equipment. Soup and a loaf of bread seem to be the obvious solution.
Once I have made something to eat, I need to find something to read. Something familiar. I am rarely far from a copy of Anne of Green Gables or I Capture the Castle or The Secret Garden. These are the stories I read and loved during childhood and, miles from where I started, they still make me feel safe. In this respect, The Little White Horse is also perfect. My copy is oft-read and dog-eared on almost every page. At times, the characters seem simply to go from extraordinary meal to extraordinary meal. Some of these - a pie, a syllabub, some biscuits - will be finding their way into the book next year, but in the meantime, there's this soup. Marmaduke Scarlet, the cook at Moonacre, makes the dinner described above for Maria and Miss Heliotrope on their first night in the manor. It's exactly what I'd want, on arriving somewhere unfamiliar. A bowl of warm, homely soup, a loaf of crusty bread, and butter the colour of marigolds.
Serves 2 generously (or 1, with convenient leftovers)
1kg brown onions
10 sprigs thyme
Ground black pepper
Two generous pinches flaked sea salt
2tbsp plain flour
400ml vegetable stock (you can use a stock pot, but it's not hard to make your own, and I think it's really worth it here)
Vegetable Stock (optional)
Please note, the amounts below are a suggestion - you can add or subtract depending on what is in your fridge
2 sticks celery
1 small brown onion
1 red onion
Handful parsley stalks
5 whole peppercorns
3 spring onions
1. First, make the stock. Throw the vegetables (cleaned and chopped, but not peeled), peppercorns and water into a large saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer, and allow to bubble away for around an hour with the lid off. Sieve and set the stock aside.
2. Peel the onions, cut in half and slice into thin semi circles. If your onions are making you cry, try to avoid breathing through your nose as you slice, or store your onions in the fridge instead of the cupboard. Melt the butter in the saucepan until it foams. Tip the sliced onion in, and fry over a moderate heat for ten minutes. Once the onions are soft and translucent, strip the leaves from the thyme stalks, and add them, along with the seasoning.
3. Once the onion is golden in places, add the flour and stir constantly for two minutes until it is evenly distributed. Pour the stock into the pan and stir again. Bring the soup to the boil, reduce the heat and then simmer until it is as thick as you'd like it (you may prefer more or less liquid than I have here).
4. Serve piping hot with plenty of bread and butter for dipping.