Smoky Cullen Skink Soup

When the first suggestion of Winter arrives, right in the middle of Autumn, it’s a reminder to gather wood for the fires and adjust the wardrobe and mental outlook for the oncoming cold season. Many Melburnians still have their head in the sand, believing that Australia is a hot place. For six months of the year, it’s cold and inhospitable, with dreary grey skies dominating the landscape, and black dressing de rigeur. Out come the Michelin man garments, those unflattering and un-environmental puffer jackets and vests that work rather well, along with fingerless gloves, berets and warm leggings, umbrellas and wind jackets. I’m not a fan of Winter but in theory, it does have a certain romantic appeal.

A taste of winter.  Southern Cross station, April 10th. Autumn turns mean.

And that appeal centres around soup. Late Autumn soups become thick and creamy, a French purée or perhaps an Italian crema. Lunchtime zuppa del giorno loaded with beans or pulses, is eaten as a piatta unica with crusty bread. Vegetarian shepherds pie makes a comeback, Autumn’s new eggplants feature in rich Turkish fare dressed with Pekmez, and the day might culminate with a sharp cheddar cheese served with whisky laced fig jam, a salty, sweet and peaty treat beside the fire. Served with a single malt of course.

Soup for two in found English bowls.

One of my favourite creamed soups, Cullen Skink, features smoked fish. Cullen is a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and is well worth a visit, while Skink ( no, not a small lizard) may be derived from soups made with shins or ham bones. There are as many versions of Cullen Skink as there are Scots. Some like it chunky: others, like me, prefer it pureed. The main thing that each recipe has in common is simplicity: potatoes, smoked fish, onions and milk. Once you begin adding fresh fish, or bacon or any other bits and pieces, the soup becomes a chowder.

Cullen Skink, for four servings or two greedy sized servings.

  • I tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large stick celery, finely chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
  • 300 ml water
  • 250 g smoked haddock, or mackerel, skin on.
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 250 ml milk
  • ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley or chives

In a large heavy based saucepan, sauté the onion and celery till soft. Add the potatoes and cover barely with water. Bring to the boil, lower to medium heat and cook until the potatoes are soft.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk, smoked fish and bay leaf. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 8 minutes or so while the potatoes are cooking.

Remove the fish from the milk. Skin the fish, carefully remove the flesh, discard all the bones and skin, then strain the milk back into the pot containing the potato. Add the flaked fish. Bring back to high heat. Then puree using a hand-held stick blender. Add more milk or cream to thin a little if you prefer. Reheat,

Add finely chopped parsley or chives to serve, with crusty bread.

* The choice of smoked fish is important. Look for small, dark whole fish, not the supermarket, chemically dyed yellow cod, or smoked salmon or trout, the latter being too mild in flavour. New Zealand readers will have more options as more varieties of smoked fish are readily available in NZ supermarkets and fishmongers.

My everyday sourdough loaves, to serve with soup.

An interesting Guardian article about the ins and outs of Cullen Skink can be found here.

Which season do you prefer? What are your thoughts on Puffer Jackets? Do you like smoked foods?

 

Farro Soup and Longing for Lucca.

In the depths of winter, Minestra di Farro alla Lucchese, or Farro soup Lucca style, hits the spot. For me, it’s a one dish meal, un piatto unico, especially when served with good bread, olive oil and grated parmigiana. It is also a kind of Tardis soup, a little ‘time machine’ bowl of goodness, flying me back to Lucca and the Garfagnana hills nearby.Zuppa di Farro alla Lucchese

Many restaurants around Lucca list Farro soup on the menu, especially in the popular touristy places offering piatti tipici Lucchesi. After experiencing a few good ones, and some not so good, I set about copying the local version during our extended visits to Lucca back in 2008 and again in 2011. On the first occasion we rented a little apartment close to the railway station and just outside the walls of the city.  Being close to the station enabled us to choof up into the Garfagnana hills, the home of Italian farro, to spend the days visiting the villages of Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, steep hill towns that at certain times of the year seem forgotten in time.

A civilised thing- a  bar at one of the tiny railway stations in the Garfagnana. Espresso or Vino?
A civilised foyer- a bar at one of the tiny railway stations in the Garfagnana. Espresso or Vino?

The first time I visited Barga, the dark slippery cobblestoned lanes echoed with the sounds of the Celtic fiddle. It turns out that there was a Scottish musician in residence and his little studio faced directly onto the street. There are a few other Scottish peculiarities around the town-a genuine fish and chip shop on the outskirts, most unusual in Italy, and advertisements around the place about a visiting delegation from a sister town in Scotland. Many folk from Barga emigrated to Scotland in poorer times. Perhaps the landscape looked familiar. Some returned as adults, hence the strong connection. Well, Barga me!, said with an Italian/ Scottish accent.

View from our little apartment in Lucca.
View from our little apartment in Lucca.
Apartment  with a view. Lucca.
Apartment in Lucca. Zuppa di Farro on the stove.

On the second occasion, we rented a small house around 7 kms out from Lucca. La Casa dello Scrittore, a small rural house in the grounds of Casale dei Tigli, is situated close to vineyards and olive groves. The charming young man and owner, Guido, delivered beautiful gifts to us each day- magnificent olive oil, a great local red wine or two and a Buccellato, the sweet fruit studded bread of Lucca. The car was essential for forays back into Lucca or further afield into the hills and small villages, to visit restored villas and their gardens or to lunch at my favourite Italian restaurant, Antica Locanda di Sesto.

Minestra di Farro Lucchese/ Farro soup from Lucca

  • 100 g dried borlotti beans ( fagioli scritti)
  • 100 g Italian farro
  • EV Olive oil
  • 1-2 carrots
  • 1-2 sticks celery
  • 1 onion
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 1 potato (optional)
  • a few leaves of cavolo nero ( Tuscan Kale) (optional)
  • 1 can of tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • fresh herbs such as sage and marjoram

Preparation

Soak the borlotti beans overnight. The following morning, cook the beans in ample water, with a few herbs, until softened. Also soak the farro for an hour or so.

Farro and Borlotti for soup.
Farro and Borlotti for soup.

In a large soup pot, make a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery. Chop them finely and cook gently in olive oil. Add the garlic towards the end.

Soup base Ingredients for  a soffrito
Soup base ingredients for a soffrito

Add the farro, cooked beans, tomato paste, can of tomatoes and chopped herbs. Cover with enough water. Cook until the farro is soft and ready . You may need to add a little more water along the way. Add the finely shredded Tuscan kale, season well with salt and pepper, and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Serve with a drizzle of good oil and grated parmesan.

Daisy loves soup.
Daisy loves soup.

Many versions of this minestra cook the beans and other ingredients first, then puree half, returning them to the pot, before adding the farro to the mix. I prefer to leave the beans whole as they shed enough thickening as the soup cooks. The pureed version is extremely thick and the farro tends to catch.

Farro soup
Farro soup