I imagine you know the fairy tale – a strange man knocks on the door of an old woman’s house and asks if he might light a fire in her garden to cook some soup. Seeing that he holds only a pot but no food, the woman challenges him: how will he make soup from nothing? Ah, he replies, I have a magic stone. All I have to do is boil it in some water, and it will make a delicious soup. She would be welcome to share it with him.
The woman assents, and watches him, intrigued. He begs a little salt, to bring out the flavour, and she obliges. He then suggests that one of those fine onions, growing over there, would be an excellent addition, and the woman pulls and chops it for him. He makes a few more suggestions: some carrots, a couple of leeks, some spinach and one or two potatoes. All would compliment the fine flavour of the stone. Ingredient by ingredient, the woman agrees, and the soup thickens.
We don’t have a stone, although I have often thought it would be fun to act out the story with Ilse. What we do have is a chicken carcass from Sunday, some slightly nibbled leaves from the garden, and a bendy carrot or two. We too can make soup from seemingly nothing.
I pick the chicken clean straight after lunch and put it, in a pot of cold water, on the still hot aga to come to the boil. Once it has, I transfer it to the oven and leave it there to simmer, then cool, by the following morning.
To this stock I simply chop and add anything which needs eating up. Vegetables which are past their best. Cold cauliflower. A potato or two, cooked or raw, does wonders. So too does a good pinch of salt and grinding of pepper.
On Monday, I add all this to the stock and boil it until the vegetables are tender, before passing it through a sieve to make it smooth. If you have a little cheese, translucent around the edges, grate this on top of each serving. Or add a swirl of cream before it goes off. The last crumbs of ham, shaken from the paper, go well with any stone soup, but especially when there are peas involved. Sometimes, when I don’t have any bones to hand, I’ll use an oxo cube instead: a twentieth century stone, if you like.
I make other soups too: leek and potato, savoury celeriac, lettuce and pea and mint. They are predictable and reassuring. As is stone soup, in its way. Predictable in how we will all be eager to see what colour it is, and what it will taste like this time. And in how it leaves the larder empty and ready for a visit from the grocer’s boy.