As an American living in England, there are many things that I find romantic: the deep history of the island, the ancient castles, the royal family, the tiny streets, the marvelous monuments, and the venerable museums.
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Last week, on a trip to the Royal Academy of Arts, we stumbled across an adjacent exhibit of The Magna Carta containing documents dating from the 13th century. Literally stumbled across it; we didn’t even know it was there. There was a well-dressed man standing at the entrance to a side building who said, “Hi, um, excuse me, um would you like to see the Magna Carta?” That’s how serious the history is on this island.
Even my daily routine is romantic. It involves walking my children, in their school-issued blazers with my daughter in a straw boaters cap, down Victorian houses to their school, where they enter an edifice built sometime in the 1700s. I then return home to work, stopping along the way at local organic shops for produce, passing by the street vendors on Portobello Road, ducking and weaving through packs of tourists with cameras drawn.
Even the weather is something to behold. In the summer, the days last forever. Sun-up happens when at 4 A.M. and sundown can be well past 9 P.M. Runners are out in the parks well before the park staff wake up.
After work, buildings in London expel their contents onto grassy squares, royal parks, and river banks while friends gather, with bottles of rosé and picnic baskets, soaking up the daylight as if to store if for later in the year. The winter contrasts deeply with the summer. In the winter, sun-up is at a lazy 8 A.M. and sundown rushes along at 4 P.M. On those days, the city takes on a different vibe: Commuters rush by with their collars turned up against the damp with colorful scarves neatly tucked into city-sensible black wool coats. The young, the elderly, and families take shelter in their local pubs for the comfort of warmth, conversation, and shelter from the damp.
This is one of the most magical things about living in England: Pubs here are not solely drinking dens. They are gathering places for families, they are community hubs, and they are escapes from work and from home. They serve as family and social gathering places and they serve to strengthen social networks, support the community, foster tradition, and provide a meeting ground.
Many pubs, in fulfilling their role as community hub, serve food, as well. Some serve food that is better than others but one staple of pub food, at any level, is soup. It is easy to prepare, simple to fancy-up with a bit of garnish, can be served quickly, and during the majority of the year, when cool weather and damp skies abound, it is particularly appealing. A few recurring soups are Minted Pea or Roasted Cauliflower and there are always creative options served at the gastro-est of pubs, like Parsnip and Cumin Soup with Orange Sour Cream. Every so often, however, regardless of how upmarket a pub is, they pull out an old favorite from the archives. They look for a soup that is a perfect antidote to damp, dismal weather and something that will fill you with warmth and comfort. This is when you see Broccoli and Stilton Soup go up on the chalkboard menu.
Simplicity is essential here. Whether a disinterested kitchen employee or Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, when Broccoli and Stilton Soup makes it to the menu, it is offering up comfort, ease, and consistency. There will be no bells and whistles on this one—that is not what diners are looking for when they pull into your pub, out of the cold, wet rain and take up a corner seat with a half-pint of Guinness and a warm bowl for lunch. Pub owners know this.
What makes this particular soup different than others is the roasting of the broccoli, potatoes, and onion before blending. Roasting concentrates the flavors of the vegetables and creates a nuttiness that compliments the Stilton cheese’s buttery, rich, and peppery aroma and flavor. Despite the extra step, the simplicity remains: Even though vegetables are roasted in the oven, they are all cooked together, and then the roasting pan itself is deglazed on the stove.
Not much is more comforting on a blustery, cold day in Britain than a hot, velvety soup in front of you, the steam fogging up your glasses as you wait impatiently to dive in and warm yourself from the inside out.
What is your "go-to pub soup"? Tell us in the comments below!
With a little digging, we're sometimes lucky enough to unearth Heirloom Recipes, dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
Photos by Jessica Bride
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).