This is a tale of two books, and one pot of soup.
Books were the bricks of my relationship with my mother. She taught me to love reading, steadily, surely, and without me even realising. My favourite game when I was very small was Libraries, which involved carting every one of the books I owned downstairs, spreading them on the garden table, and then deliberately and with much consideration, choosing three or four, which I would take to my mother, who sat with a glass of wine and a cigarette, and pretended to stamp those books. Then I would put them all away again. I was an easily pleased child.
So this is the story of how two unlikely books found their way into my life, and offered me some kind of succour. Some time after my mother died, a friend contacted me to say that she had been entrusted with an old book of my mother’s. It had been borrowed by a friend of my mother, and forgotten about. Her mother had found it many years later and, for whatever reason, retained it. After my mother died, it became important to her that she reunited me with this book. I confess that I let the whole thing slide. I’m bad at contact at the best of times with the best of intentions, and these were not the best of times. Eventually, poor Sophie must have given up trying to pin me down. And that’s how a large, mysterious parcel ended up on my desk in chambers.
Criminal barristers don’t receive many parcels: there are few clients who are in a position to send thank you gifts. In fact it was such a rarity, that a colleague mentioned its appearance to me in the pub. Notwithstanding this, I assumed that the parcel was some public show of high gratitude for my excellent advocacy, client care and never-say-die spirit. I was wrong.
I opened the package. Inside was an old, thick, slightly battered and faded paperback book: Principles of Public International Law. My mother’s maiden name, in her distinctive handwriting, was written on the inside cover. I hadn’t seen her handwriting in unexpected places for two years; the effect it had on me was immediate and disproportionate and visceral. My heart jolted. I flicked through the rest of the book: her annotations throughout the first three chapters (and absent thereafter: I truly am my mother’s daughter).
I have never studied public international law, but I’d hazard a guess that an edition from 1978, predating the UK joining the European Union, may be slightly outdated. This book could not be less useful if it tried. It was, in the most literal sense, obsolete, irrelevant.
But I was holding a book I had never known existed. A book owned by my mother before I existed. The book was my mother’s before my mother was mine, before she was my mother, or a mother.
It remains the most useless book I own. More so than a now-neglected teach-yourself-basic-Spanish, or an always-neglected copy of Atlas Shrugged. But it is far from irrelevant. It is a piece of the past, a piece of her past. A link to the woman who was so much more than just my mother. It sits, unannounced, nestled in between my own current law books on my bookshelf
I don’t really pick it up; why would I? It’s an academic law textbook published nearly 40 years ago. But it matters that it’s there.
If the need for, the love for having Principles of Public International Law in my life, in my home was unpredictable, unexpected, the other connection to my mother was clearer, more urgent from the outset. I needed to be able to make my mother’s minestrone soup.
It was this soup that mother made for me when I was sick, it was her cure-all, it was home. I spent a lot of my teenage years being poorly, and my mother nursed me almost exclusively with this soup. She would sit opposite me at the table, watching quietly as slowly, spoonful by spoonful, I ate it and then walk me slowly, quietly around the garden.
It became imperative that I be able to recreate this soup. The entirety of my mother’s cooking and love quickly seemed bound up and represented by this soup. I needed this soup. I needed to get it right.
It was made with care in both senses. It was full of care: my mother’s expression of love, of patience, of effort. But it was also careful: everything chopped meticulously, placed in neat piles, and then one by one, place in a big pot in a preordained order.
So I started trying to recreate it from memory. I knew it involved tiny pasta, and bacon and a lot of vegetables. I knew that they were diced precisely. I bought pasta and bacon, and I diced vegetables precisely. I threw them in a pot and thought good thoughts.
I drowned in soups, unable to quite replicate what I needed. I could get close, but I couldn’t nail it. I turned to the internet and spent late nights gazing at google results for soup recipes eliminating possibilities: no, no, no. Of all the dishes to need to replicate, minestrone soup must be the worst: one which, even when authentically made, has as many variations as it has cooks, and is bastardised in inauthentic ways the world over.
Then one day, I was idly looking through some old cookbooks. I almost turned the page without looking at the minestrone soup, but something stopped me. I read through the recipe, and a light switched on in my head: this was the recipe. This was my mother’s minestrone soup. I looked at the instructions, and could picture my mother following this pattern of dicing and adding and simmering. I closed the book and looked at the front cover. It was Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. This was Delia’s minestrone soup. My mother had been using Delia’s recipe. OF COURSE she had been using Delia’s recipe. I had been searching for this recipe, experimenting, testing this recipe for two years only for it to be in one of the most famous cookery books ever published.
So I make this soup now in the pot that my mother used, and finally I make it as she did. I have fiddled with it a little, because when I need this soup, I need it urgently, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to make ham bone stock, and also because I love courgettes. Delia, I’m sorry.
This is a restorative soup: packed full of vegetables, terribly good for you, and manages to be both comforting and full of flavour. It is a slow soup, and it should be made as my mother made it: carefully and full of care.
It goes like this:
Mummy’s Minestrone Soup (with apologies to Delia)
Makes: 4 hearty portions
Takes: 10 minutes of chopping
Bakes: 2 hours on the stove
75g tiny pasta (macaroni or little shells)
1 tbsp olive oil
3 rashers of streak bacon snipped into lardon-sized bits, or 50 g of lardons
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
Half a can of tinned tomatoes
1 garlic glove, finely chopped,
2.5 pints of chicken stock
2 leeks, finely sliced
1 courgette, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato puree
1. Place a large saucepan or casserole dish on a medium heat. Melt the butter and add the oil. Add the bacon and allow it to colour and go slightly golden. Turn down the heat to low and add the onion, celery and carrots, and cook until just softened
2. Add the tomatoes, garlic and a pinch of salt, and leave on the low heat for 20 minutes, occasionally stirring to prevent sticking.
3. Add the stock. Bring to a gentle boil, pop a lid on, and leave to simmer for an hour.
4. Add the leeks and courgettes and pasta and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes. 5. Stir in the tomatoe puree and cook for a final ten minutes.
5. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake Spoon, still steaming into bowls and cover with extremely generous gratings of parmesan. Eat and feel better.