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Food and drink

The art of personal restoration - From toddies to bouillon to weather an autumn storm

With slooshy wet snow pelting down on Saturday night, you may have been shivering in your boots on your way to somewhere, all the while wishing you were cozied up at home in a nest of wool or fleece, depending on your style parameters for warmth, with a cup of some hot restorative.

The idea of food and drink as a physical and psychological restorative left us about the time central heating and omni-present groceries kicked in. But if you can picture yourself in a stone-cold 13th century manor house in dead of winter, knocking about the hollow, drafty rooms in search of a lit hearth, or in a wee cottage with thatched roof and packed earthen floor where a small cooking fire and a tallow candle were your only hope of salvation (and heat and light), the joy taken in a hot restorative becomes much more palpable.

In more modern parlance, the concept of restorative has come to mean a “hot toddy” — “toddy” possibly from the days of the Raj and the British East India Company and subsequent familiarity with the juice of certain palms, called toddy (arrack, the stuff of many romantic Victorian novels, if it was fermented), or from a facetious play on Edinburgh’s word for “water” supplied by Tod’s Well.

Hot toddies presuppose an alcoholic measure of some sort (whisky, brandy, a liqueur or three), some kind of hot beverage (tea, coffee, hot chocolate or apple cider, fermented or not) and, if sweetening agents aren’t already built in to the above, then a sweetener, along with some sort of spice with aromatic qualities — cloves or cinnamon and the like — and possibly a dash of citrus, adding vitamin C to the restorative formula, and/or butter for a few extra calories on a cold winter’s night. And so hot buttered rum, mulled wine, hot apple cider and company were born.

But I was bent over a piping hot bowl of vegetable soup the other unseasonably cool, grey day, and while inhaling its delicious, steamy aroma it struck me that this, too, was a terrific restorative.

I could easily picture long wooden tables and benches set up in a plain hall in Paris or the back room of an appartmento in Venice, say a hundred years ago, where woolen-garbed workers and ordinary people would come on a cold wintry day for a bowl of hot soup and chunk of heavy bread to restore themselves with food and, ideally, the conviviality of like-minded souls.

This, it turns out, was not a wholly original thought and, had it occurred to me in the middle of the 18th century, say, it might have had legs. For it was around 1765 in Paris that a bouillon seller named Boulanger made a little sign for his business that read: “Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”

He was considered the first restaurateur — or “restorer” — and went on to open the first proto-restaurant that served either sheep’s feet in wine sauce or sheep’s fat in white sauce, or a conflation thereof, depending on which translation you encounter.

In French history, the word “restaurant” first appeared in the 16th century and referred to a “food that restores.” More specifically it usually referred to a rich, highly-spiced soup which was said to restore lost strength. The 18th century gastronome Brillat-Savarin referred to chocolate, red meat and consommé as restaurants . They all sound like suitable candidates to me.

This meaning of restaurants as foodstuffs was retained well into the late 1800s. At that point, the word “restaurant” started referring more and more to a place that sold restorative foods.

While you may well feel “restored” after a visit to your favourite restaurant today, it’s likely that with its carefully designed menu, lighting, decor and all the rest, you feel as much entertained as anything, having enjoyed a far more complex experience than a cup of bouillon taken at a communal wooden table or street vendor’s stand would allow.

Out of curiosity, cold and weakness, I’ve been searching lately for the recipe for that original, spicy restorative soup which returns strength and gumption by the spoonful. Unfortunately, I’m sad to tell you that I’ve had no luck.

I’ve found recipes for   Potage Raphael , Potage Saint-Cloud , Potage Paysanne and Potage Xavier . Potage Longchamp and soupe à la bonne femme. Soissonnaise (with haricots blancs ), potage crème d’avoine (nettle soup) and even classic bouillon, the mainstay of French cookery. All are ready for the making, but none seem spicy or otherwise fortified enough to instantly restore one’s sagging sogginess.

That is not until I found this recipe for Three-Bean Vegetable Soup, the grand restorative I was inhaling nine paragraphs ago.

It’s a wonderful soup, rich with low bass notes from the carrots, parsnips and turnips and high, zippy tones from all the fresh celery leaves and herbs. It’s also easy enough to prepare from all sorts of local vegetables available right now — it just takes a bit of chopping, a pleasant enough task with your favourite music playing in the background on a grey Saturday morning while you’re still in your pajamas and slippers.

By the time you read your paper and have your shower, your soup will be ready to restore you for lunch and thereafter throughout the weekend.


Three-Bean Vegetable Soup

(from Carol Gelles’s 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes )

1 c. dried kidney beans

1/2 c. small dried lima beans

8 c. water

2 c. chopped cabbage

1 c. chopped carrots

1 c. chopped celery

1 c. chopped parsnips

1 c. chopped onions

1/2 c. chopped turnips

1/2 c. green or yellow split peas (dried)

1/2 c. chopped fresh parsley

1/3 c. chopped fresh celery leaves

1/4 c. chopped fresh dill

1/3 c. small pasta (break up spaghetti if you don’t have orzo or small shells etc.)

3/4 tsp. salt, or to taste

1/4 tsp. pepper

Soak the kidney beans and lima beans overnight in water that covers them by 2 inches. Drain. In a big (6-qt.) pot, combine the water, soaked beans, cabbage, carrots, celery, parsnips, onions and turnips. Bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in split peas and return to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 1 hour. Stir in parsley, celery leaves and dill. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered 30 min. Stir in pasta, salt and pepper and simmer 10 min. longer or until pasta is cooked. Instead of salt you can substitute 2-3 vegetable bouillon cubes.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who never met a homemade soup she didn’t like.