Sunday, December 20, 2009

Elizabeth David & Jane Grigson's Mushroom soup a la Bresse

Potage aux champignons a la bressane

Mushroom soup

If asked to come up with the menu for my final meal, this soup would be a strong contender for the first course. It’s intensely mushroomy, and is a pleasing proper mushroom grey colour, flecked with black mushroom gills. When left overnight it thickens considerably and makes a rather good sauce for chicken.

What separates it from other mushroom soups is its secret ingredient: a thick slice of bread. Jane Grigson tells us that sauces in the Middle Ages used breadcrumbs for thickening (as opposed to flour or a final enriching addition of egg yolks & cream).

Apparently this culinary habit persisted into Tudor times, and has a final echo today in the Christmas bread sauce. The most extraordinary thing is that there is no trace whatsoever of the taste or texture of the bread upon eating.

I’ve had great success in cooking this soup for avowed mushroom avoiders. And so I’d like to dedicate this post to the memory of our friend Sean Donovan, who was killed in the summer of our second year at university, who hated mushrooms and loved this soup.

The recipe below comes from Jane Grigson’s seminal 1975 cookbook The Mushroom Feast, which I naughtily bought on the book bursary I was awarded for my theology degree. Grigson found it first in Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, but I’ve chosen Grigson’s version to run here as it is slightly clearer.

I make this from memory, by sight now, but I did actually cook it according to the exact recipe for these photographs.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Mmm butter.

melted butter

Chop mushrooms roughly

chopped mushrooms

Cast mushrooms into saucepan to cook gently in the butter. As the juices run, add half the parsley, garlic, salt & nutmeg to taste.

Mushroom soup

Realise you have forgotten to pick the parsley, put on unspeakable gardening clogs and venture out into the night to forage for parsley.


Add the chopped parsley to saucepan

Mushroom soup

Take heel of stale bread from bread bin. Remove crusts

sourdough bread

Tear the slice of bread into pieces and soak in a cup of the stock.

Mushroom soup

Transfer everything into the saucepan and add the remaining stock. Cook for fifteen minutes

Mushroom soup

and then blend in the pan with a stick blender (or use a liquidizer)

Mushroom soup

Heat the cream to a boil, add to soup with the rest of the parsley. Adjust seasoning

Mushroom soup

The soup is named from Bresse, an area of France famous for its food, and for being the home country of Brillat-Savarin. Grigson tells us that recipes from the area have ‘a fine simplicity of flavour which can only be created by using ingredients of the finest quality, without skimping’.

Well, that’s us told.

¾ lb mushrooms chopped (I like to use a mixture of large flat, white, and brown/chestnut to get the best flavour)
2 ozs butter (Do not use margarine EVER)
2 tbsps chopped parsley
small piece of garlic, chopped
salt, freshly ground black pepper
nutmeg or mace
a thick slice of bread
1 ¾ pints good stock (I’m afraid poor Jane wld roll in her grave as I use Marigold bouillon)
3-4 ozs cream