Many years ago, as a child, I was told the story of a magician who had a magic stone. The magician used to ask villagers for some food and a bed for the night in exchange for a magic trick.
And the villagers were kind and generous folk, but they had nothing, and they could not feed themselves, much less the magician. But the magician offered his help, and he produced his magic stone, and he found the biggest cooking pot he could, and filled it with water, and put in his magic stone.
And the magician asked if there were any old vegetables, and a farmer brought some turnips which he had been keeping for the pigs, and another farmer produced some potatoes which had sprouted, and an old woman offered some old carrots.
And the magician added them to the pot, and he let the soup cook all day. And come evening, he served the stone soup to the villagers, and they thanked him and fell asleep well-fed, warm and happy.
And the next morning, the magician took his magic stone, and he told the villagers that his stone had enchanted the pot, and that if they ever wanted for food, they should make stone soup, just as he had.
Acquacotta, or cooked water, is one of those recipes which is very regional; the Maremma region of Italy apparently produces the classic version, a soup of tomato, celery, onion and basil served over stale bread, apparently a Pane Toscano (a fascinating recipe; unsalted bread, thanks to the history of high salt taxes in Tuscany.)
This version, adapted from a recipe by the wonderful food writer Rachel Roddy, whose writing and recipes I greatly admire (I cannot recommend her Guardian column enough. Seriously, read it!), uses those ingredients, as well as garlic, potato and mixed greens.
The recipe also pushed to the forefront of my mind a question which I find myself examining from time to time; it’s part of a subject that I like thinking about when I cook. It’s the question of seasonality.
In the modern day, where we have fridges and freezers and container ships and greenhouses, it’s easy to decide on a day like this that some spring greens would be nice, or that parsnips would be nice in June, and so on.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently philosophically wrong with this; in fact, Sartre would probably castigate those who choose to eat seasonally as being in bad faith with themselves; they are playing the part of a peasant.
There’s a counter argument there, though, and that revolves around the environment. For beef, only 2-5% of the total carbon emissions produced by the meat are from transport; for vegetables, I imagine it is much higher. And while it’s so easy, under these circumstances, just to shrug it off - and there’s certainly a sad truth to the claim that citizens can’t possibly mitigate the emissions produced by big businesses - it’s a factor still worth considering.
And much as my rational mind might decry it, there’s a certain Romantic ideal of eating seasonally; the association between roast parsnip and cold walks where your breath clouds around you is powerful. Of course, that association ignores the options of serving parsnip in a panna cotta or as crisps with a barbecue, but it has an allure nonetheless.
So, where do I stand on seasonality? It’s question which I’m entirely unprepared to answer, and to be honest, I think that the best I can do is to keep asking myself the same questions, and acting as my conscience and my stomach dictate I do.
Anyway, the recipe.
- olive oil
- 1 red onion
- 1 white onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 4 stalks celery, ideally leafy
- 12 tomatoes, peeled (or a tin)
- 1 large potato
- Parmesan rind
- 100g greens - sorrel, dandelion, chard, borage, or whatever
- Dice the onions and garlic as finely as possible and slice the celery as thinly as possible.
- Sweat the onion, garlic and celery in plenty of olive oil with a pinch of salt. Peel and dice the potato and chop the tomato.
- Add them to the pan along with the parmesan rind and another pinch of salt. Cook for a few minutes.
- Add 1.3 litres of water and simmer for forty minutes, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary (perhaps another 100ml or so.)
- Add the greens and cook for a further ten minutes.
- Serve with warm bread. It’s better the next day, and if you so choose, you can poach a few eggs in it just before serving.