Slainte!
The History of Irish Soup

Theories abound regarding soup's inauspicious beginnings.

By Edythe Preet, Columnist
December / January 2001

Come fall, the days grow shorter, temperatures drop, and trees shed their leaves. Just as certainly, as soon as there’s a chill in the air and a hint of winter weather creeps onto the scene, we all begin longing for what cookbook authors are fond of calling `comfort food.’ For some folk, that’s a hearty scoop of macaroni and cheese. Others pine for a plate of meatloaf and gravy or a pile of buttery mashed potatoes. Me? As soon as the last wisp of summer warmth has faded away, I start craving soup. It heads my list in the `comfort food’ category.

Think about it. What warms the bones best on a cold day? Soup. What’s the only thing you feel like eating when you’ve been ill? Soup. What do you reach for when you’re dog-tired, famished, and in no mood whatsoever to cook? A can of – that’s right – soup. Absolutely nothing is as comforting, tummy yummy, and downright soul satisfying as a great big steaming bowl of soup.

The history of soup is not as simple to trace as many other foods.

Shell middens tell us our forebears ate a variety of oysters, clams, mussels, cockles and other shelled sea creatures. Bits of charred bone found in archaeological digs establish which animals were consumed. The charred remains of grain cakes indicate that prehistoric people had devised a rudimentary form of bread. Stone Age soup-makers may not have left any similar clues lying conveniently around the campsite, but even so, as far as cooking styles were concerned, boiling was second only to roasting over an open fire. The way this was accomplished proves just how clever the hunter-gatherers were.

While excavating a Neolithic settlement in 1952 at Ballyvourney, County Cork, an archaeological team led by Professor M. J. O’Kelly uncovered a deep pit lined with hardened clay and flanked by arc-shaped hearths. Theorizing the pit had been used for cooking, O’Kelly suggested that the hole had been lined with clay and left to dry, at which point it had been filled with water whereupon red-hot rocks that had been heated in the hearths were dropped into the water-filled trough. Once the water reached a boiling point, pieces of meat could have been lowered in and cooked. Skeptics argued the process was too cumbersome and slow to be effective.

Undaunted, O’Kelly put his theory to the test. A new large pit was dug and lined with wet clay. When the clay dried, it was filled with approximately 300 gallons of water. Using green wood sticks, red-hot rocks were pulled from the hearths and rolled in. The water began to sizzle and steam, and within half an hour it was boiling. A tenpound leg of mutton wrapped in hide to protect it from floating bits of grit was tied up with plaited straw rope and lowered into the bubbling water. As the liquid cooled, more hot rocks were added. In just three hours and forty minutes, the meat was as perfectly cooked as if it had been placed in a pot and simmered on the burner of a modern stove, and the water had been transformed into a nutritious broth.

Sometime during the 8th or 7th century BC, the Celts arrived in Ireland from mainland Europe. From their contact with the Greeks and Romans, they had learned to fashion implements from riveted bronze and they brought with them a cooking vessel that quickly became the most indispensable utensil in the entire Irish kitchen: the forerunner of the 3-legged iron pot. Stone Age Irish had learned to fashion clay pots, but they were fragile and cracked if exposed too long to heat, whereas bronze pots could be left on or alongside the cooking fire almost indefinitely. There were other advantages as well. The new pots were watertight; they kept food hot even when removed from the fire; and they made it possible to cook smaller portions, which in turn inspired cooks to experiment with combinations of different ingredients.

The 3-legged pot is so much a part of Irish food tradition that it features in one of the most famous myths. The Dagda, chief among the Celtic pantheon of deities, was known for his appetite and possessed a magical cauldron from which “no company ever went away unsatisfied.” No wonder, for this is what was stirred into it on one occasion: “They filled for him the king’s cauldron, which was five fists deep, and poured four score gallons of new milk and the same quantity of meal and fat into it.

“They put goats and sheep and swine into it, and boiled them all together with the porridge.”

Most early Irish soups were actually a form of porridge and the key element was usually oatmeal, Ireland’s own grain staple. The word porridge comes from the Latin word porrus which means leek, a vegetable the Celts had acquired a taste for in their dealings with the Greeks and Romans who believed the vegetable was an aphrodisiac. Whether the Celts bought into that theory will never be known, but Brotchan foltchep, a thick broth made with leeks, oatmeal and milk, is the most traditional of all Irish soups.

Adding just one more vegetable to the basic recipe (e.g. carrots, parsnips, turnips, mushrooms or even wild nettles) allowed cooks to provide a parade of tasty soups that changed with the seasons.

Soup’s greatest moment in Irish history occurred at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-49. In February 1847, the English government passed The Temporary Relief Act, which the Irish immediately dubbed with wry humor The Soup Kitchen Act. Alexis Soyer, a well known French chef at London’s famous Reform Club, had invented massive soup boilers, and he was invited to Dublin to oversee the operation.

The first soup kitchen opened April 5, 1847 at the Royal Barracks.

According to a contemporary account, people were admitted to the building one hundred at a time. They entered by one door, lined up at long tables where they were given a bowl of soup and a piece of bread, and were marched out through another door. For every two gallons of water, the recipe called for half a pound of beef, two onions, half a pound of barley, half a pound of flour, two ounces of beef drippings, three ounces of salt, and half an ounce of brown sugar. The resulting concoction was little more than flavored water. On a happier note, there’s the eating and drinking soups full of hearty munchies and lots of liquid to mop up with your favorite buttered bread. Made of ingredients ranging from native pork, cabbage, carrots and barley to Roman leeks, Norman peas and South American potatoes, hearty Bacon, Pea and Barley Soup perfectly illustrates how soup has remained a constant element through all of Ireland’s long and colorful history. And no account of the Irish love affair with soup would be complete without mention of Irish Stew. In one form or another, Ireland’s most famous meal has been around since the 7th century. Call it what you will, as far as I’m concerned a tasty mix of meat and veggies swimming in a savory broth that warms the bones, fills the tummy, and makes me feel all comfy cozy is soup. Sláinte!

RECIPES

Brotchan Foltchep

6 large leeks

1 heaping teaspoon butter

2 pints stock and milk mixed

4 heaping tablespoons flake oatmeal

salt and pepper

pinch of mace

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

cream (optional)

First wash the leeks well, and to ensure that all grit is loosened trim the green ends and cut a cross on them, then stand them green-end down in a deep jug of cold water for a time. When they are clean and trimmed, cut into chunks about 1 inch long, both the green and white party. Heat the butter with milk-stock mixture, bring to the boil and add the oatmeal, stirring well. Boil up, then lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Add the leeks and the seasonings. Bring again to boiling point, then lower heat and simmer until the oatmeal is cooked, about 15 minutes. At this point the soup is ready, or it can be liquidized in a blender. Serve hot.

Just before serving stir in the parsley, A little cream can be added to each portion if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

(Irish Traditional Food – Theodora Fitzgibbons)

Bacon, Pea & Barley Soup

1 pound smoked ham hocks

6 ounces pearl barley

1 cup dried split peas

1 small head of green cabbage

3 medium leeks

2 large carrots

1 small rutabaga

2 medium potatoes

parsley

thyme

bay leaf

freshly ground black pepper

First soak peas and barley in 2 pints of water for 2 hours. Place the peas and barley with their water into a large pot along with the ham hocks. Add enough extra water just to cover the hocks completely. Add the herbs and the pepper. Bring it to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, approximately 2 hours until the meat is completely tender. Peel, chop and dice all the vegetables, making sure to thoroughly clean the leeks of all grit. Chop the cabbage finely and set aside. When the meat is cooked, remove the ham hocks onto a plate and add all the chopped vegetables except the cabbage to the pot. Simmer them approximately 30 minutes until tender.

While the vegetables are cooking, remove the meat from the bones and break it up into pieces. Discard the skin and fat. Add the cabbage and ham pieces to the pot, and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Serve immediately with soda bread or crusty country bread. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

(Traditional Irish Cooking – Biddy White Lennon)

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