Saturday 26 February 2011

Creamy soup, village life and fish in a bag

A few weeks back I made a creamy potato soup. A few of you commented on how lovely it looked below a heart shaped cheese cracker. I was pleased to hear but I fear all the kudos goes to the crackers rather than the soup. Creamy white with green flecks is not the most attractive of soups. In fact it reminds me of fish in a bag. Which takes me back to my days as a carer in the English countryside. So I hope you will indulge me with a little trip down memory lane.

Many years ago I had a working holiday visa for the UK. After a stint working in London I wanted to see the real England and embarked on a short-lived career as a carer for elderly people. I cooked steak, I refused roles that seemed to be for nurses and I spent a couple of months in a tiny village in Warwickshire. It was in this village that I learnt many things, including how to cook fish in a bag.

The village looked like something out of Midsomer Murders with its thatched cottages and stone walls. The church had a covered gateway, called a lychgate. I even spent time having tea with neighbours where wills and money were discussed. It was here that I first heard the phrase "shrouds don't have pockets". There were no shops. The villagers told me that the shop had closed once VAT was introduced.

A lot of my day was spent watching television with the lady I looked after. I lost count of the times we would watch the news each day and I became very familiar with Richard Whiteley's Countdown. Each day I would go for a walk. I needed to get out and loved exploring the public footpaths that went through the fields and the kissing gate (see below photo).

On my walks I passed lots of raspberries in the hedges and haystacks in fields. One of my fond memories is meeting a strange old man who told me all about the badgers he had seen and made me stand on a bench seat with him while we watched a fox so that it didn't smell our scent. I was delighted to discover a post office in an adjoining village up the hill. It was great to be able to send letters home when I was so isolated. The second time I went there I couldn't find it again. Later I found out that it was in a private house that only put the post office sign out when they were open.

After a while I got out a little further. One time I needed to see the doctor for a medical for my travels. I must have walked 20-30 minutes to get to a nearby town that had a doctor. Later I discovered that I could take a bus into Banbury to browse the high street shops. I had to make sure I caught the bus back because they only went to my village twice a week. Maybe this explains why even some bus drivers didn't know where the village was. I remember the old ladies saying "turn right here, driver" to one who lost his way.

It was a strange life. Once a week I received a food delivery and put in an order for the next week. We also had a gardener, a salt of the earth chap who grew lots of veggies. Below are his onions hanging up. I also remember begging a pumpkin off a neighbour who thought them only good enough for his pigs. It wasn't the best pumpkin I had ever eaten but I was homesick for them.

But the lady was not really interested in her food. In fact one of my main tasks was to make sure she ate. If she had her way she might have existed on polo mints and chocolate fingers. She liked plain food. Sausages, bacon, salad cream and fish in a bag. I had never made fish in a bag before but it suited me as a vegetarian. All I had to do was drop a bag of fish in a creamy sauce with flecks of parsley in a saucepan of boiling water. When it was done I just cut one edge of the bag and tipped the fish and sauce onto the plate. She loved it.

Don't ask me what I ate. It wasn't pretty. I only remember one dish of baked rice and condensed tomato soup. This wasn't a job that I could do long term. I was happy to save money and then head off on my travels. Though I have sometimes wondered about the people in this small village and if my lady is still alive.

I am glad to say that even if this soup reminded me of fish in a bag, it was far more complex and interesting. My inspiration started with some leftover buttermilk that I wanted to put in a soup. I turned to Nava Atlas who has lots of creamy soup. Her Parsley Potato Soup sounded tasty. However by the time I had made some changes and teamed it with my Creamy Lentil and Date Salad, it was a tad bland.

It needed a makeover and a new partner. I threw in some freshly-ground black pepper, smoked paprika and mustard and let it sit overnight. I paired it with the cheese biscuits. It was absolutely delicious. E fell in love with it and I was pleased to offer it to my dad when he dropped in for lunch. It was very tasty with a tang from the buttermilk, some freshness from the dill and parsley and lots of chunks of vegetables.

Previously on Green Gourmet Giraffe:
This time last year: Shrove Tuesday Blinis
This time two years ago: Valentine Day Polenta
This time three years ago: Queen Victoria Market - day and night

Creamy potato and dill soup
adapted from Nava Atlas
serves about 6
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 5-6 cups water
  • 3 tsp vegetable stock powder
  • 5 medium potatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cauliflower, chopped
  • 125g cream cheese
  • 1/2 rolled oats
  • 1 bunch parsley, roughly chopped (or about 1/2 cup finely chopped)
  • 2 tbsp dill, snipped with scissors
  • 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk
  • 2 tsp seeded mustard
  • 1/4-1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper (or grind 1/2 tsp black peppercorns)
Heat olive oil in a stockpot. Fry onion and celery over medium heat for a few minutes. Add garlic and fry another 10-15 minutes until vegetables have softened. Add water, stock powder, potatoes and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes. Add cauliflower and cook another 5-10 minutes or until potatoes are cooked. Add cream cheese herbs and rolled oats. Stir well and cook another 15 minutes. Add buttercream, mustard, smoked paprika and black pepper. Gently heat and serve with a little chopped dill as a garnish. If possible, make it the previous night and it will taste even better the next day.

On the stereo:
Early Morning Hush - Notes from the UK Folk Underground 1969-1976: Various Artists


  1. What a great story! I could just imagine that little town. And what an eccentric old lady! Fish in a bag--who knew? Your soup definitely looks much better!

  2. Living in the country like that sounds like an amazing experience! I think somewhere in my ancestral memory is homesickness for the rural British countryside, because it seems really appealing!

  3. Oh Johanna, more trips down memory lane, please! Your story appeals to my love of history, sociology, travel, food, and adventuring :) Please, please, more!

    Sadly, this soup is a bit beyond my lactose-intolerant capabilities, but I'm glad it worked so well!

  4. I liked your little old lady story. I could visualise everything you spoke of as I'd done a similar thing back in my mooching backpacker days.
    Fish in a bag I didn't though.

  5. Wow the photos of England are making us homesick! This soup is definitely on our to do list, dill is one of my favourite flavours and so is smoked paprika, and I've never met a potato I didn't like! Curious to see how the oats impact, interesting.

  6. I have never heard of fish prepared that way but your soup sounds infinitely tastier than that ever could have been! What an insane story. Sounds like a great experience, if a little odd at times.

  7. What a wonderful story indeed...thanks for sharing!!!

  8. That soup looks wonderful as I love dill and its one of my favourite herbs! And much better than rice with tomato soup! :)

  9. Thanks Ricki - she was a peculiar old lady but quite sweet and easy to live with, if you didn't mind a lot of telly

    Thanks Sarah - the british countryside is gorgeous but I did miss the bright lights of town

    Thanks Hannah - glad you enjoyed the story - some days I think I should write a bit more about my travels - maybe! as for the soup, Nava Atlas uses a lot of vegan dairy substitutes so perhaps you could try that if you were interested in creamy - but I would just say skip it and make fudge otherwise!

    Thanks City Hippie Farmgirl - I much preferred fish in a bag to having to cook steak on another assignment - but isn't it strange to live in other people's houses like this!

    Thanks Adam and Theresa - the oats thicken and given a bit of gloopiness - I am a bit hot and cold with dill but I adore smoked paprika and sometimes have to stop myself putting it in every meal!

    Thanks Joanne - glad I told the story of fish in a bag - wasn't sure how well known it is - think it comes out of the freezer - strange stuff. As for the carer work, it was amazing and a great way to see more of England but there was only so much I could take of it

    Thanks Lisa - glad you enjoyed it

    thanks Lorraine - maybe my rice with tomato soup would have been improved with a bit of dill :-) though that would have been a bit exotic in those parts


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