One of the starters at the First World War Supper Club has a long and distinguished history in literature. Pea soup – which appears in May Byron’s Pot-luck, our source recipe book for our 1914-inspired menu – is mentioned in the Ancient Greek play, The Birds, by Aristophanes (first performed 414BC). The servant of Tereus, an Athenian prince who has been turned into a bird, explains how he must serve his master and bring him all types of food: “Again he wants some pea-soup; I seize a ladle and a pot and run to get it.”
Tereus’s pea soup was probably made from dried peas, as it is only really since the Early Modern period that people have been eating fresh garden peas – Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat notes in A History of Food that fresh peas in their pods were introduced to the court of Louis XIV in January 1660.
Dried peas are a very cheap foodstuff and so, in literature, pea soup has been associated with poverty. In the short story “A Little Dinner at Timmins'” by William Makepeace Thackeray (c. 1848), Mr Timmins suggests to his wife that they invite Mrs Portman to their dinner because she has invited them to dine with her “twenty times … within the last two years.” Mrs Timmins’ reply – “And the last time we went there, there was pea-soup for dinner!” – accompanied by “a look of ineffable scorn“, makes it clear it is not the type of dish she expects to be served at a dinner party!
And in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) the protagonist Tess, sent by her parents to make the acquaintance of the wealthy Alec D’Urberville whom they believe to belong to the same family as theirs, tells him that, although their family name is “corrupted to Durbeyfield” they “have several proofs” of being D’Urbervilles, among them “a very old silver spoon, round in the bowl, like a little ladle, with a ramping lion on the handle, and a castle over him.” But she laments that, owing to its age, “mother uses it to stir the pea-soup.”
In the First World War, pea soup was a staple food in the trenches. Ernest Jones, who served in Salonika, in an Imperial War Museum recording recalled that the soldiers were served soup daily at midnight: “Pea soup, always pea soup, and it was always cold. But it was hot when you drank it because there was so much pepper in it!” (http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/podcasts/voices-of-the-first-world-war/podcast-20-trench-life)
My pea soup for the First World War Supper Club was served hot (not just pepper-hot) and the addition of lettuce and mint adds a subtlety and elegance that I hope even Thackeray’s Mrs Timmins might have found acceptable!
LETTUCE, PEA AND MINT SOUP (Serves 6)
1 large round lettuce (about 400g)
a thick slice of butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
500g frozen peas
500ml vegetable stock
leaves from 3 sprigs mint
Melt the butter in a deep saucepan over a medium heat. Soften the shallots in the butter. When they are tender but have yet to colour stir in the washed and torn lettuce leaves. When the lettuce has wilted, add the peas, stock and the mint leaves and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down, season with salt and black pepper and simmer for 7-10 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and blend the soup in a liquidiser. Check the seasoning and serve hot.