Thursday, August 17, 2006


The first thing I ever remember cooking was a bucket of mud soup that I fed to my younger brother. Despite being an instrument of torture, this dish was a model of eating locally, with the ingredients at hand. The two of us had been sent out into the garden in our matching anoraks to play with the tortoise, Herman. There were, it later transpired, several versions of Herman across our childhood, although at the time we weren’t informed of this, and I therefore can't really say whether this was Herman I, II or III.

The first two Hermans had death wishes. Herman the First didn't wake up from hibernation, and was, I now understand, simply replaced by a quick trip to the pet store. Herman II did wake up, only to emerge from his winter home and tumble to his death from the high, white cliff that yawned at his doorstep; his hibernation box had been placed on top of the dryer. But David and I were not told of this tragic leap until much later. Instead, another dash to the pet store was made, probably by my father, and one day we were told that Herman had finally awoken! That my brother and I did not question the identity of Herman III does not speak well of our cognitive abilities. Our langorous friend Herman had been a fossil with legs, for whom a day's hard labour involved looking right and then, if he was up to it, looking left. I must admit that we thought very little of Herman. Until suddenly, he became a positively scintillating pet, whose every movement hinted at the freedoms of the wild.

From our perspective, Herman took his winter nap and awoke as the speediest, most beady-eyed tortoise known to humankind. Herman III was not only accelerated but adventurous to boot. His predecessors were happy to live in the little tortoise house, with its flat roof made from asphalt trimmings, and emerge only when tempted with slices of cucumber, which they would dispatch, in a bureaucratic manner, with the sideways action of a pink tongue. They were tortoises who had become real Little Englanders, content with the blandness of a comfortable life, irked only if the neighbors peeped over the hedges. Herman III, on the other hand, not only got a leg on, but had places to go and bedding plants to eat. He tried everything. First in our garden, and when that King Buffet caused ennui, he moved on to the neighbours'. Born under a wandering and hungry star, Herman III made his way through stretch after stretch of suburban garden, burrowing a modest underpass whenever he was met by a fence.

It was a chilly business, trailing up and down the street, knocking on front doors and asking people, who clearly considered Other Human Contact an affront, whether they'd seen our tortoise or whether their primped gardens showed the effects of tortoise dining. But of course Herman III’s wanderlust had stirred love in our hearts. A rake, even a reptilian one, is always attractive to cabin'd, cribb'd and confined young people, and my brother and I felt a yearning sort of thrill in Herman’s explorations of the back gardens of Orpington, Kent. But one regretful day, we were informed that Measures Had to be Taken. Our father appeared with a drill, and proceeded, against our shrill protestations, to put a hole through the hem of Herman's lovely shell and attach him with a long chain to a stake near his little ranch house. Utterly unconvinced by the parental assurance that Herman was unharmed by the operation, we could barely conceal our delight when the next day the shackled Herman climbed onto his flat roof and hurled himself from it with such vigor that he wrenched his stake free. My brother and I watched, silent and conspiratorial, as Herman ambled off, his chain dragging behind him, a veritable Magwitch in the marshes. He who returns must, however, be doubly repressed, and upon capture Herman’s tortoise dignity was further sacrificed. My father got out a paint pot and Herman's pierced shell was daubed with our address in big white letters. Now on days of disappearance, we simply sat at home, eating dinner and listening for the knock at our door and the latest tortoise delivery.

Perhaps all that Herman desired was to taste the horticultural offerings of others: he was migrant because he was a gastronome. Or maybe he became a gastronome because of his taste for migrancy. All I know for sure is that my brother and I were not allowed to wander beyond our regularly creosoted fencing, and I, at least, was fascinated by food and its pleasures from a very early age. Forced to cook locally, I forced my brother to eat locally. I had a red bucket, there was a tiny circular pond that my father had dug and lined with a rubber guard. Give a child a stick, and she will find some good-looking soil, go in search of "herbs" and get to stirring. Bits of pansy, twitches of alyssum, a judicious blade or two of good lawn grass - I had the makings of a pretty delicious looking brew. We sat on our two designated sawn-off tree trunks, and at my urgings, my brother became my first dinner guest. This meal may also have been the origin of the strange, un-chefly habit I have of not tasting the food I cook until it is on the table - who can say? I don't have any recollection of my brother's assessment of this first soup of mine, but I daresay he does.

I have progressed since then. Like Herman, I have done some wandering, even if my chain still clanks noisily behind me. I have fallen in love with different cuisines one new garden plot at a time. I tarried a good while in the cookbook-less phase of life, spending my undergraduate years throwing random things into under-washed pots and seeing what happened. Then I hurled myself in the other direction, amassing cookbooks, relishing each new world they opened up, and following their instructions with evangelical zest. The middle road – a little of each approach – is the one I usually pick. But sometimes I am so torn between pre-planning a menu and just going to the market and seeing what I find, that I go equipped with a recipe book or two. On more than one occasion this havering has ended with me leaving my recipe book in a shopping basket or on a bench – a gift, I suppose, for another forager. Dithering in the face of enormous bounty is, of course, a quintessentially bourgeois bind, and the solution (to so many other things, as well) is to make peasant food.

Ever since making this year's pesto alla Genovese, I have been thinking of the summer minestrone I once made. It has only been half on my mind, and I hadn't quite planned it, when I spotted cranberry beans in the market this morning. These must surely be the most enchanting of beans, pretty enough to be the ones that made Jack give up his cow. Cranberry beans bulge glossy white and pink, as if one colour is the topcoat, flaked off, the other the undercoat broken through - but it remains their secret which is which. Upon cooking, the colour fades to nothing, the mottle soaked away in the broth, but like any good disappearing act, ripples of magic remain.

I happily filled a shopping bag with the beautiful pods – creamy white and pink just like the beans inside – and tried to remember what else had been in my minestrone past. Pesto topped it off, and this I knew I had. A parmesan crust gets simmered in this soup, and I always salvage mine for this purpose, merrily disregarding the fact that I produce rinds in far greater bulk than I produce minestrone. Chicken broth formed its base, and along with the giant freezer bag of vegetable odds and ends that I keep for making stock, I almost always have blocks of stock itself in my deep-freeze, an icy tally of roast chicken dinners consumed. The rest I wasn't sure of, so I wandered home clutching my bag of beans, intent on leafing through my recipe books.

Back at the ranch, I surrounded myself with a stack of cookbooks and revived with a glass of assam and rose iced tea. The rosebuds were a gift from my friend Dianna who procures me delicious floral teas from China - chrysanthemum and green tea and jasmine balls that bloom into flowers (again), as they steep in water - or dragonwell tea: each is more of a teacup-sized miracle than the last. My stack of books told me a story of no recipe at all. Clifford A. Wright reminded me that Genoese-style minestrone is a soup that changes with the seasons and "is the quintessential meal of cucina povera" because it uses what is to hand. My beloved bean recipe book, The Bean Bible, by Philadelphia food wizard Aliza Green - of whom a journalist memorably and rightly proclaimed "she could make a snow tire taste good" - reminded me that I had everything I could want of a summer minestrone right there in my fridge. Her recipe uses just yellow squash and zucchini and tomatoes and leeks. Leeks I didn't have, but some mild, sweet "Red Long of Tropea" onions remained from my farm share, and since they are an Italian - Calabrian - onion, I was sure my soup would be amenable. Everything else - the squashes, some green beans - had been left to me by a neighbour who had gone on holiday and I'd found a carrier bag of her garden goodies on my doorstep early one morning not so long ago. Sometimes the garden comes to you.

Minestrone means "big soup" and today that's what we had for lunch: an expansive bowl of gifted, salvaged and lit upon ingredients. Immediate vegetables, seasoned with the stored up flavours of sauce and stock, a product of both wanderings and sitting put - all I needed to complete the pleasure would have been the companionship of Herman III. But Herman III finally wandered off for good one day. Perhaps he found his way into the garden of his dream, reformed, and settled down. But I hope not. A true gastronome carries his home with him – it is his tongue and his heart and his imagination – and I hope Herman wanders still. Tortoises, after all, are old as the hills -- and will those crabby feet, in future times, walk upon England’s mountains green?

Serves 4 hungry people well

1 pound shelled fresh cranberry beans
1/2 pound fresh green beans, sliced on the diagonal
1 pound fresh tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 small red onions sliced
8 cups or 4US pints or 3.5 UK pints chicken stock
1/2 pound yellow squash, cut into half moons
1/2 pound of small zucchini, cut into half moons
handful of parsley, chopped
1/4 pound of any small pasta shape
Parmesan rind
Olive oil
Equal quantities of Parmesan-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano, grated

Put the onion, chopped parsley and a little olive oil in a stock pot and sauté gently for just a few minutes.
Add the stock, the cranberry beans, the tomatoes and the parmesan rind. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the beans are tender. Skim off any foam that might rise to the surface.
Add the green beans, the yellow squash, the zucchini and the pasta and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the pasta is cooked and the green beans tender. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve and top with a generous spoon of pesto, a drizzle of olive oil, some grinds of black pepper and the grated cheese on the side.

Aliza Green, whose recipe served as the basis for mine, serves her Summer Minestrone with zucchini blossoms stirred in just before serving – if you have them, do it! Borage is also a traditional flavouring.

Leeks, mushrooms, celery, carrots, potatoes, eggplant, fava beans and greens are all to be found in other minestrone recipes, so substitute in vegetables as you like.


Blogger goodyoneshoe said...

Any entry that incorporates Blake and tortoises into a minestrone recipe has my entire attention. Have never thought of eating locally as part of a movement started by Gilbert White's tortoise Timothy...

11:07 pm  
Blogger goodyoneshoe said...

More thoughts: tale of tortoise and hare allegory for the slow and fast food movements?

Looking forward to coverage of the rabbit later: perhaps lapin au chasseur avec des flagolets. Eaten by a stormy November hearth and accompanied by a good cotes de rhone?

11:39 am  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

An urban forager could hardly help feeling a deep affinity for Herman the peripatetic tortoise. And we must all thank the blessed critter who inspired your culinary travels, Syllabub.

I love your suggestion, Goodyoneshoe, but a hare and a rabbit are, gastronomically speaking, entirely different beasts. May I offer pappardelle con la lepre as an alternative?


4:36 pm  
Anonymous metnym said...

What a lovely narrative of culinary beginnings. Mary Shelley has a thing to say about beginnings: Everything must have a beginning. "That beginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos give the world an elephant to support it, but the elephant stands on a tortoise. Invention [is not born] out of the void, but out of chaos. The materials must first be there." Apparently in your case, the tortoise must first be there. A literal-minded wench is the best type of wench after all. I've always suspected it, being one myself. May I suggest that you might serve blaked stuffed shells this way: Will those crabby feet, in future times, walk upon England’s mountain greens...

8:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I entered upon this adventure full of high hopes. It seemed -- well, reasonable. Not so far from my own Ozark chicken soup beginnings.

Alas, I have proven once again that there are chefs and there are . . . people like me.

First, there was an unfortunate coincidence. I received the recipe for Minestrone on the same day that I received a shipment of Chinese herbs for a Chinese herb chicken soup. I went to the store and bought ingredients for the minestrone, then picked up my herbs. It occurred to me to combine the two recipes, but I did have forethought enough to realize that if I did that, I wouldn't know if I liked chinese herb chicken soup OR Syllabub minestrone. So I proceeded to make the herb soup first, using just a bit of the veggies I had purchased for the minestrone.

The directions for the Chinese herb soup said, "Put all of the herbs that are in the bag into a pan with a whole chicken and simmer it for one hour."

The problem was that there were two bags inside one brown paper bag. I understood the direction to mean that everything in the brown bag should be boiled together with one chicken.

What I had forgotten was that my herbalist had suggested two things: chicken herb soup and some berries that are supposed to give you energy. I didn't recognize the berries, and boiled them with my herbs and my chicken. It made a lot of soup -- I will be having one serving per week for four weeks. That is, my husband and I will. There are eight servings -- six left. He is a very good sport, and actually the soup had a tangy taste, thanks to the berries. Only the seaweed that looked exactly like earthworms with several limbs was a hurdle.

The next day I set about the minestrone. I went back to the store, since the herb soup had ended up needing my chicken stock. But in my rush to get in and out of the store, I accidentally bought vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. And there were no beans in pods of any sort, so I bought two cans of white beans. Not a good omen.

In my 72 years of life, I have never seeded a tomato before. I am happy to report that the bits of tomato looked quite nice with the somewhat disintegrated beans.

I will not make you suffer through the rest of my second disaster in a row, but suffice it to say you would not want a photograph of my minestrone. However, we sat on the front porch watching the rain and ate it for our supper, and if I closed my eyes, I would have thought it was a rather successful soup. At least there were no seaweed worms -- I thanked the gods of the kitchen that there are those who can make food that tastes good and looks like jewels, too.

What's next?

8:20 pm  
Blogger Tlazolteotl said...

Ah, the tea photo looks a lot like some rose Pu Erh tea I once tried, acquired from a shop in Vancouver, BC. They told me it was good for the complection.

I love your turtle story, it makes me think I should blog about my now weekly baking of bread for my birds - after spoiling them horribly and being somewhat careless about their diets, one of them got sick this spring. The vet gave me a lecture, and a recipe for "bird bread". So now I think of how to vary the recipe in interesting ways, so that my companions will not be bored.

I will have to try out your minestrone, too.

6:42 pm  
Anonymous Bill said...

As a lover of minestrone and the childhood keeper of turtles, I hugely enjoyed this post. Thanks, KL.

6:44 am  
Blogger Dum Luk's said...

I tagged you for a meme on blogging.
Have fun.

-- ml

6:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It turns put, according to Natalie Angier in today's Science Times, that 'tis human to love turtles. The whole article is fascinating and well worth reading, but this snippet seems especially relevant to the syllabub audience:

Menu plans vary as well. Many turtles are omnivores, happily consuming fruits, leaves, insects, mollusks, fish, frogs, ice cream. Dr. Gibbons told of a friend whose pet box turtle would respond to the sound of a spoon being tapped on a glass ice cream bowl by emerging from behind the couch, walking over to its owner, rearing up on its hind legs and waiting to be spoon-fed its just dessert. “Had I not seen this a few times myself,” he said, “I would not have believed it.”

3:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My overwhelming feeling is one of tender sorrow for the caged Herman, who was obviously as desperate to escape the confines of Orpington as you were. I'm not sure that the Minestrone really makes up for it. Let's hope he has holed up in a pleasant part of the south downs, or perhaps set to sea upside-down in a beautiful pea-green boat...

5:21 am  
Blogger CarolinaJessamine said...

It seems just as likely that it was a search for romance rather than food that spurred the wanderlust of Herman (or Hermione?).

11:04 am  

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