Thursday 8 May 2008

Meandering Musings on Split Pea Soup

We went to see a medieval book exhibition on the weekend (as advertised on my tram ticket on the right). It made me think that, after my recent foray into vintage cookbooks, that it would be fun to make something appropriately historic for dinner. With no time for ‘research’, I took my inspiration from Lysy’s fascinating post on pease pudding which she says was a common 18th Century workhouse meal. It made me think of pea soup which seems to have a long line of ancestors and is a childhood favourite of mine.

My mum often made us pea and ham soup is when I was young so it not just delicious but brings the comforts of nostalgia too. The version I make is meatless but I did check my notebook of recipes and found a recipe with bacon bones that I made many years ago before I was vegetarian. Every winter it seems to reappear on my menu in some guise. Recent successes with smoked paprika made me suspect this might impart the smoky flavour of pea and ham soup without resorting to faux meat. I was interested to see Haalo mention paprika flavouring her green split pea soup, so knew I was onto something good.

Planning on the run, rather than surrounded by cookbooks, I consulted a few Australian cookbooks in Myer department store while waiting for E to hunt down a novel he is after. Stephanie Alexander, Karen Martini and the Australian Women’s Weekly all gave recipes for pea and ham soup so it does seem well-loved by many Australians. As I like my pea soup thick, I used a bit more peas and less water than they did and of course omitted the ham bones.

Once I was full as a state school (is it just my family who used to say this?), I was interested to see if it really was a medieval soup so I checked the internet. Wikipedia told me that this soup has indeed permeated our popular culture. Not only did Victorian Londoners compare their fogs to pea soup, but it has found its way into Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Star Trek and the Exorcist.

And according to Vegetarians in Paradise pea soup was indeed a medieval meal. In the Middle Ages dried peas were a staple of the European peasants because they were inexpensive, plentiful, filling and stored well. In many England and Scottish homes a large kettle of a thick porridge made of peas hung over the fire pretty much permanently. Each morning the fire would have died down and the porridge went cold. The fire would be rekindled, more peas and vegetables added and they started all over again. Makes a lot of sense of the rhyme ‘peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old’.

You might turn up your nose at nine days old pea soup but I have been told that as recently as in my grandmother’s generation, Australian women had permanent stockpots on their stoves into which they threw trimmings and scraps. I don’t think I would mind a constant source of pea soup, or stock (just like the magic pudding). But I am not sure I’d want a house that reeked of old pea soup.

As well as my pea soup being fresh, it also benefits from a hand held blender to puree it to a smooth consistency that our medieval ancestors probably never knew. I love this soft sludgy texture that reminds me of playing in the sandpit or at the sea as a child. Yes, I like it so thick you could almost sculpt a sandcastle with it. But it tastes great too, particularly with smoked paprika.

To continue this mucky metaphor, when pea soup dries it really does seem like dirt as the surface hardens and cracks. It reminds me of a film we saw at primary school called Lost in the Bush about 3 children who get lost and keep walking looking for a familiar sight. They are found lying on a dried up lake that looks just like the surface of a cold stockpot of pea soup. The lesson of the film was that if you get lost while bushwalking you stay in the one place.

Enough lessons for today! I am sending this soup to Laurie of Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska for Weekend Herb Blogging which was founded by Kalyn of Kalyn’s Kitchen.

Split Pea Soup
serves 6 as a main meal

1 tbsp oil
2 onions, chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
4 garlic cloves
2 carrots (or 1 carrot and 1 parsnip)
2 celery sticks (or celeriac)
2 small potatoes
3 cups yellow split peas
2-3 tsp salt
8-10 cups water (I like it thick and put in 8)
3 bay leaves
2-4 twigs of thyme, tied together with string
Black pepper to serve

Heat oil in a large stockpot and fry onions and smoked paprika until onions start to soften. While onion fries, roughly chop and add vegetables. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer covered for about an hour or til peas are cooked. (1½ - 2 hours seemed standard in cookbooks I consulted but one hour seemed enough for me.).

While soup is cooking, be sure to stir well occasionally to check the soup is not sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. If you want to get into the medieval frame of mind, towards the end of the cooking you can pretend to be St George fighting the fire breathing dragon as you use the saucepan lid like a shield to avoid being attacked by the burning spatters of soup.

When soup is cooked, remove bay leaves and thyme. Use a hand held blender to puree the soup til smooth. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve hot with a sturdy bread (I had some dark sourdough rye from Rathdowne Street Food Store).

On the Stereo:
The Secret Life of: the Waterboys


  1. A Medieval Book Exhibition?! That's so exciting!

  2. What a fabulous post! One of the things I love about cooking (and one of the reasons I buy cookbooks and started our blog) is the connection between cooking, history, and identity. I really enjoyed this post and all the tidbits, especially pea soup as an ongoing stock bag sort of meal... simultaneously revolting and brilliant.

  3. I am also really interested in Medieval cooking, music and literature...maybe you should host an event - Medieval Foods! That would be such fun!

  4. I love split pea soup too, and I'm so pleased my pease pudding inspired you to make one! Is that a pumpernickel bread you ate it with? It looks amazingly dark and dense!

  5. Sounds like an interesting exhibition (as does that magic pudding--what a concept!!). Your post reminded me that the very first thing I ever cooked in my first apartment as an undergraduate was ham and pea soup (and the ham was courtesy of my butcher dad--about 750 miles away!). This one sounds very good (I'm also a thick-soup lover).
    PS--I've sent you an email via Google :)

  6. Fabulous soup.

    Fuller than a state school? Never heard it, but it did make me laugh!

    Love the smoked paprika as the weather cools down.

  7. I do like pea soup and this sounds like a particularly flavorful version. I do enjoy your well researched posts!

  8. Lovely to add smoked paprika to this old classic. I've been using dried chipotle chillies from Herbies in my split pea soups. They give a wonderful smokiness, with only a slight amount of heat.

    Like Lucy I love the "full as a state school" phrase. Never heard of it, but think I'm going to adopt it!

  9. thanks Romina - the illustrations are amazing

    thanks Neen - isn't it strange that something so basic as cooking can have so many layers of meaning! Oh and I do enjoy being able to meander on the blog and not worry about focus etc like I might at work

    thanks Jenn - oh yes you have lots of fun with the medieval them - a medieval banquet event sounds a fun idea!

    thanks Lysy - I must try pease pudding some time - the bread is dark sourdough but a lot softer than it looks - a good pumpernickel would be great with split pea soup

    thanks Ricki - that is nice that your first meal out of home was cooked with meat from your dad! Sort of like weaning you away from family cooking. Seems an email has been lost in the ether but got this one thanks (and replied)

    thanks Lucy - I credit you with getting me enthused about smoked paprika when I started blogging last year - after a rocky start am so glad I persevered (well I had a whole jar of the stuff so it was persevere or the bin)

    thanks Lisa - I love a bit of research when I can find the time and energy - you would probably like the smoky chillis in pea soup that Kathryn mentions below!

    Thanks Kathryn - I don't know my chillis but you make me think I should try some different ones as I like the sound of the chipoltes. Now I am curious about 'full as a state school' and where it came from - but feel free to use it (am sure the governments will continue to make sure it rings true)

  10. And as far as I can see, you can not beat pea soup for wonderful especially with smoky papricka. Also makes good gravy on a baked potato.

  11. The smoked paprika is a genius idea, and exactly the right note for vegetarian pea soup. Thanks for submitting this to Weekend Herb Blogging!

  12. thanks Tanna - split pea soup as gravy on baked potato sounds fantastic - comfort plus!

    thanks Laurie - yes I am sold on the smoked paprika and split pea soup combo - will look forward to WHB round up

  13. I'm a huge fan of split pea soup, and your smoked paprika idea sounds wonderful. What an interesting and informative post too, great job!

  14. thanks Kalyn - excellent: another lover of split pea soup- try the smoked paprika with it for extra flavour.

  15. Exactly the kind of split pea soup I groove on...steaming hot, thick as cement and totally filling...yumza! Thanks for the recipe! :)


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