It seems that winter is well on the way. The orchard sparkles with early morning frost; the very last of the russetted autumn leaves are clinging onto the branches; and there’s hardly a honeybee to be seen (they are mostly staying put in the warmth of the hive). The garden birds know it too. They are busy flitting from bush to tree, fattening themselves up in order to survive the coldest months of the year. The goldfinches have taken a liking to the lemon balm seed heads by the front porch that we neglected to cut back in the summer; while the blackbirds sit alongside them, munching their way through the cotoneaster berries. We happily watch them through the window, usually with hands clasped firmly around a hot mug of tea.
Half the vegetable beds are empty and tucked up with a new layer of compost until spring, but there is still a good supply of kale, chard, rocket, corn salad, carrots, and a few brussels sprouts to keep us going. There are plenty of woody herbs too. We are using a lot of bay leaves in particular at the moment. In fact, the little bay tree is perhaps the most treasured plant in our garden. We propagated it many years ago using a cutting from the garden of a relative. Sandy compost, smatterings of rain water, a couple of repottings, and a few buckets of fresh compost, transformed it from a twig into a sizeable bush. It travelled here with us from London and now sits on the patio in a crumbling terracotta pot, within easy reach if we need to nip out and pick a couple of its evergreen leaves on a winter’s eve.
We’ve also been dipping into our indoor vegetable stores. The Centurion onions, which we lifted from the raised bed back in August, have kept brilliantly so far. Hanging in bunches from wire and pegs in the conservatory, they still look as fresh as the day we picked them (albeit with crisper, golden skins). There’s a wooden tray of Vallelado garlic too; one of our less successful growing experiences from earlier in the year (the bulbs came out rather small after we forgot to cut off the scapes).
It is the onions, garlic and bay that we made use of in the kitchen today, along with some hefty leeks from the farm shop. We cooked them down slowly along with a thick slice of butter until soft, sweet and on the edge of collapse. Then we added a glass of crisp, dry cider, siphoned off from the tank that has been sitting in the living room since apple pressing day (we really need to bottle the rest up as soon as we get a moment); plus a savoury kick of chicken stock from the freezer (made earlier in the year from the carcass of one of our departed cockerels). A couple of spoonfuls of raw cider vinegar, added to the resulting soup right at the end of cooking, balanced the sweetness of the alliums. It brought freshness in the same way that a few drops of lemon juice can lift a plate of sugared strawberries or smoked salmon.
We usually make this soup at least two or three times every winter and always eat it with a pile of cheese on toast on the side. Coarsely grated, mature cheddar splashed with a little Worcestershire sauce, tumbled high onto toasted sourdough slices and popped in the oven for a few minutes to bubble and melt. The soup is particularly good to eat if we’re feeling a little worse for wear and we have fully convinced ourselves that it has the ability to ward off any winter cold. If nothing else, it’s a comforting bowlful of warmth and goodness, and a great excuse to make cheese on toast.
Onion, Leek and Bay Soup
- 60 g unsalted butter
- 10 large bay leaves
- 1 kg white onions, thinly sliced
- 400 g leeks, trimmed, washed and thinly sliced
- 4 fat cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2.5 tbsp plain white flour
- 200 ml dry cider
- 1 l chicken stock
- 1-2 tbsp raw cider vinegar
Melt the butter in a large stock pot over a low heat and then stir in the bay leaves, onions, leeks and garlic. Season with a generous pinch of sea salt and several grinds of fresh black pepper, then leave everything to cook down slowly, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened almost to the point of collapse, and significantly reduced in volume. This will take up to an hour.
Sprinkle over and stir in the flour, then add the cider and stock. Turn up the heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Let the soup putter away for 15 minutes or so, until it has thickened up.
To finish add the raw cider vinegar a little bit at a time, tasting as you go (be careful not to add too much will ruin the soup, but the right amount will freshen it beautifully). Season with a little more pepper and salt to taste.
To serve, ladle the piping hot soup into deep bowls. Toasted sourdough with mature cheddar cheese and a sprinkling of Worcestershire sauce is a very fine accompaniment.