The UK soup market is worth £480m, with favourite flavours including Italian minestrone and Chinese chicken noodle. Ben Walker takes a whirlwind world tour.
Classic soups such as minestrone and miso have been eaten for centuries. Almost every country in the world has its traditional recipes which have been passed down from generation to generation. Soups are always the same, yet always different, as Bjorn van der Horst, chef-proprietor of the Eastside Inn, London, highlights: "There are as many recipes for French onion soup as there are grandmothers."
This most comforting of comfort foods is a culinary staple in Britain, thanks in no small part to our grey, drizzly climate. And soup has growing appeal. According to market researcher Mintel, the UK soup market is valued at £480m, with 52% of consumers choosing soup at lunchtime.
In a TNS survey of 25,000 UK consumers, varieties such as Italian minestrone and Chinese chicken noodle are in the top 10 favourite soup flavours, and high street outlets such as Pret A Manger and Eat are popularising many more global varieties. With this in mind, what follows is a rapid culinary tour of some of the most celebrated soups of the world, pausing at each port to savour their characteristics and flavours.
One of Russia's better-known culinary exports, borsht is the classic beetroot soup. The earthy flavour of the beet is complemented by a rich beef stock and is equally good served hot in winter or as a chilled summer soup.
A swirl of sour cream and scattering of chopped chives is the traditional garnish. Serving in a pure white soup plate will highlight the rich colour of the beetroot.
Traditional Hungarian goulash is made without any water at all. Equal amounts of onion and beef chuck steak left to simmer will generate all the liquid required for this dish, although beef stock can be added to make it less of a stew and more of a soup. Sweet Hungarian paprika and caraway seeds are key seasoning ingredients and chopped parsley is the traditional garnish. Serving with warm, crusty granary bread makes for a satisfying lunch.
A variation on Italian minestrone from the Maremma region of Tuscany, acquacotta - which literally means cooked water - substitutes rice or pasta for stale bread which is added at the end of the cooking process. Use ciabatta or a similar bread with no added salt.
As with minestrone, acquacotta has evolved from its peasant origins to become a very hearty vegetable soup, often served with a poached egg floating in the centre of the bowl. Serve with coarsely grated Parmesan or pecorino.
Due to its refreshing qualities, this cold tomato-based raw vegetable soup is widely consumed in the summer months across Spain, Portugal and parts of South America. The main ingredients are ripe tomatoes, cucumber, spring onions, peppers and garlic, which are blended until smooth. The traditional garnish consists of finely chopped hard-boiled egg, raw spring onions, red or green pepper, cucumber and parsley.
Gazpacho is not particularly suited to the British climate, however. David Cavalier, director of food at contract caterer Charlton House, warns that chilled soups do not tend to sell well in Britain, "unless we are at least four days into a prolonged heatwave".
Rich and heavy, French onion soup is ideal for serving in winter and is made from beef stock, caramelised onions, stale bread, white wine and grated cheese. Van der Horst recommends using sharp, large Spanish onions, very dry white wine, and Beaufort cheese, a stronger alternative to Gruyère.
A fish soup containing at least three varieties of cooked fish plus shellfish and vegetables, bouillabaisse originated in Marseille and is traditionally flavoured with garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel and saffron.
For Rob Kirby, chef-director at contract caterer Lexington, bouillabaisse works as an excellent showcase of sustainable British fish served as a main course. Pollack, gurnard and red mullet are combined with prawns, mussels and razor clams. The fish are grilled separately and added with saffron potatoes to a tomato-based broth seasoned with star anise and garlic, garnished with rouille and served with a rocket side salad.
Miso soup works extremely well as a theatre-style staff dining option, says Cavalier. Quicker than a stir-fry, the soup can be prepared to order in front of the customer from a choice of noodles, meat and vegetables.
Miso is a paste most commonly made from fermented soya beans and the soup is the result of adding it to dashi stock, a Japanese culinary staple made from boiling dried sardines, kelp, tuna and/or shiitake mushrooms in water. According to Japanese custom, the solid ingredients added to the soup are chosen to reflect the seasons and provide contrasts of colour, texture, and flavour. Strong-flavoured spring onion and delicate tofu are often paired, or ingredients that float and sink, such as seaweed and potatoes.
"Because of its richness in protein and minerals, miso soup is very good for the body and is growing in popularity," says Hamish Brown, head chef at Roka in Charlotte Street, London.
HOT AND SOUR
Hot and sour is an example of a thick Chinese soup containing shredded pork and dried Chinese mushrooms, which are simmered together to form a thick broth. It often contains daylily buds and wood ear fungus - edible species of flower and fungus commonly sold in Asian food markets. Bamboo shoots and tofu are also key ingredients. Chinese hot and sour soup is typically made spicy by red peppers or white pepper, and sour by vinegar.
The Thai version normally includes shredded chicken and gets its heat and tartness from a combination of red chillies, root ginger, lemon grass and coriander. Asian soups tend to be consumed quickly with no accompanying bread or side dishes.
This wonderfully named Scottish soup dates from the 16th century and is made from chicken broth, leeks, rice, prunes and shredded chicken. Tom Kitchin, chef-proprietor of the Kitchin, Edinburgh, has re-created it as an amuse-bouche of jellied cubes of chicken consommé containing slow-cooked chicken, rice and prunes. Cock-a-leekie is traditionally garnished with a julienne of prunes.
Originating from Cullen, a small town on the Moray Firth coast of Scotland, this rich smoked haddock and potato soup is ideal for winter Sunday lunches. Alex Fisher, managing director of supplier 3663 First for Foodservice, says: "Do not use haddock that's been chemically smoked and dyed."
He poaches fillets of finnan smoked haddock in skimmed milk with a bay leaf and then removes the fish. Unpeeled chunks of new potato, leeks and onion are simmered for an hour in the milk, which has retained the smoky flavour of the fish. Butter, double cream and the fish are added towards the end. The soup is garnished with black pepper and served with garlic bread.
Chowders are thick soups from the Eastern seaboard of the USA usually containing seafood, potatoes and cream or milk. The best-known variety is New England clam chowder, which is traditionally made with potatoes, onion, bacon or salt pork, flour and clams.
Often New England clam chowder is served with clam cakes, which are deep fried balls of buttery dough with chopped clam inside. The New York variation, Manhattan clam chowder, uses a clear broth base with added puréed tomatoes.
This hearty English soup was a favourite of Queen Victoria's and, although its popularity has waned since the 1980s, brown Windsor is still found on the winter menu at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden, London. It generally contains lamb or beef steak, parsnips, carrots, leeks, Madeira wine and a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf. Traditionally, the meat, vegetables and broth are processed into a thick blend.
A Jamie Oliver version of the recipe adds pearl barley and suggests serving the soup with cheese and mustard-flavoured soda bread, although plain dumplings are the traditional accompaniment.
HELP IS AT HAND
Heinz Foodservice research indicates that soup accounts for one in five starters ordered. The Heinz Select ambient range is based on leading retail varieties and includes Chunky Farmhouse Vegetable, Hearty Mushroom, Tangy Tomato and Basil, and Sweet Carrot and Coriander, while the company's condensed and ready-to-serve soups include all the traditional flavours. www.heinzsight.co.uk
In the current trend towards local provenance and seasonality, Nestlé Professional advocates adding summer ingredients such as asparagus or fresh tomatoes and basil to its Maggi soup bases for easy-to-prepare yet bespoke recipes. www.npextra.co.uk/maggisolutions
Classic tomato and basil is the top seller in the Loyd Grossman six-strong ready-to-use soup range from Premier Foods. Free from artificial colours, flavours and MSG, other varieties include chicken and vegetable, minestrone, mushroom pottage and spicy parsnip.
Old favourites such as tomato, closely followed by minestrone, cream of tomato and chicken, are still the most popular varieties according to Unilever Foodsolutions. The Knorr 100% range of ready-to-use soups includes Carrot and Coriander, Sweet Pumpkin and Parsnip, and Leek and Potato varieties. Knorr Soup2Go branded cups are available for a grab-and-go option. www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk