When I reviewed restaurants for a living it was never a case of eating what I would like best. It was eating what made a story or, at the very least, a paragraph. I soon realised that one of the quickest, simplest ways to test the competency of a kitchen was to order the soup.
It can tell you such a lot about the chef. If he can’t get this right, what chance the rest of his menu? If he’s just reached for a packet and added hot water then you can bet the microwave in the kitchen is pinging merrily away all evening as food is fetched from the freezer. And tinned soups always have that giveaway taste, usually of too much sugar.
If he’s a chef who has made his own stock instead of crumbling a cube, has used, perhaps, some of the ingredients from the other dishes on the menu, shows good judgement in seasoning – a critical thing with soup – then you can look forward to the rest of your meal being in safe hands.
Soups are usually considered humble but they can be glorious. I once had an ultra-elegant minestrone at Fischer’s of Baslow Hall, the vegetables cut so perfectly Toytown small, the flavours light and bright. Compare that to the minestrone served up not far away which saw me hauled up before the Press Council.
It was a poor meal all round with lacklustre service but the chief offender was the minestrone soup. No pasta, no rice (not obligatory, I know, but would have helped), instead globules of fat which coated the back of my spoon. I let rip in print. The Star got two kinds of letters: the first from readers saying ‘You could have been at our table, that’s what we found;” the second from the restaurant which demanded (1) a retraction, (2) a review by someone not called Martin Dawes or (3) they would invite me back “to have the pleasure of throwing me out.”
The then editor told them to stick it up their cannelloni so they complained officially, claiming I was not a qualified chef and so not qualified to criticise. On that argument only published authors could review books, or playwrights the theatre. The case was thrown out.
Chefs should love soups. A little adroit spicing and seasoning gives a dish which costs pennies but sells for pounds. I have previously remarked on the popularity of butternut squash soup, which almost cooks itself into the most amazing veloute texture. Yet some chefs have got it wrong. Serve it too thick and it’s gloop on your spoon; thin it out too much and it loses its structure.
One of the soups I remember most is the sour rye soup served inside a hollowed out home-baked loaf at the Polish restaurant Mniam Mniam on Abbeydale Road. This was a thin, salty, herby broth in which floated pieces of sausage and a boiled egg. The Poles must like soup. You could have any starter you wanted as long as it was soup: there were 10 of them and two more on the specials board.
I once accidentally dropped my tie in the soup at a Sheffield Italian restaurant (yes, it was that long ago when men wore ties on a night out) and they took it away, cleaned it, pressed it and presented it to me perfectly laundered without charge at the end of the night.
There used to be the Great Sheffield Soup Scam where restaurants got letters from a chap claiming soup had been splashed on their clothing while dining and enclosing a copy of the dry cleaning bill. Most paid up, not wanting the aggro. Until Cary Brown, then boss of Carriages (now the Peppercorn), on Abbeydale Road South, got one. Now Cary is an excellent chef but he has a thing about soup. He has never, ever served it on a restaurant menu. I can’t quite remember how but I think the chap was invited around to the restaurant to claim his money . . .
He finished up in the soup, so to speak