Preparation and cooking time: 1hr (not including soaking of beans)
In the idyllic surrounds of an 18th-century farmhouse, chef Thierry Crovara uses the fresh basil grown in his bountiful herb garden in a soup that has long been a favourite dish among the people of Provence, but which also bears a striking resemblance to a famous Italian dish.
“We are in the garden of France, here in the Luberon,” says Thierry, as he surveys his large herb garden, which is just a few steps from the kitchen of his homely hotel-restaurant. “We have the sun here and we have the water. It’s green everywhere because the water table is just five metres underneath the ground.” Perhaps better known for its acres of lavender and vineyards, the Luberon area of Provence is home to farms and growers providing a bounty of produce to kitchens near and far. Many of the vegetables find their way into the Provençal dish, soupe au pistou – a soup that encompasses a host of different flavours. “It’s a traditional recipe from the Mediterranean with basil, garlic and olive oil We eat it hot, but also cold. It’s a country recipe, so if they didn’t have beans, for example, they’d just put in something else. You can put in whatever you like,” says Thierry, who cooks a variety of Provençal and French dishes for the hotel’s daily table d’hôte, served in the dappled shade of the wisteria-clad terrace. “The people of Provence will tell you, ‘It’s our recipe’, but in Italy it’s called minestrone, it’s almost exactly the same thing – only they use pasta and we use potatoes,” he explains.
The clue to the Italian connection also comes in its name: pistou and pesto are largely the same thing and the French and Italians will gladly debate the ingredients of their pistous and pestos, with the latter containing pine nuts and cheese. Some will insist the basil leaves are small and young, others that they are torn from their stalks to ensure a smooth consistency. Whatever is decided by the individual cook, the highlight of soupe au pistou, or indeed minestrone, is the dollop of pesto stirred in at the end, giving the dish the refreshing aroma of basil and the heady taste of garlic.
- 500g (1lb) uncooked white haricot beans
- 100g (31/2oz) onion
- 200g (7oz) carrots
- 100g (31/2oz) celeriac
- 150g (5 1/3oz) courgettes (zucchini)
- 150g (5 1/3oz) French beans
- 3 tsp olive oil
- 2L (70fl oz) chicken stock
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste 150g (5 1/3oz) potatoes
- 100g (31/2oz) basil
- 1 head garlic, peeled and chopped finely
Put the dried beans in a bowl covered with water and soak overnight.
Peel and cut the onion, carrots and celeriac into cubes. Wash and cut the courgette into cubes. Cut the French beans into 2 1/2cm (1in) sections.
In a saucepan, heat 1 tsp of the olive oil and sauté the onions, carrots and celeriac until they soften slightly, but don’t let them colour.
Add two litres of stock.
Drain the white beans and add them to the soup, simmer for 30 minutes, season.
Peel and cut the potatoes into cubes. Then add the potatoes, French beans and courgettes and cook for 20 minutes.
Just before taking off the heat, season again.
Mix the basil with the remaining 2 tsp of olive oil, then add to the soup. Add the chopped garlic, without reheating. Serve in warmed bowls.
To turn this dish into a main meal, add fillets of red mullet (30g/1oz apiece), simply season them and fry them in a bit of olive oil on the skin side, then turn them until cooked through. Place them on top of the soup just before serving.
IMAGE © LONELY PLANET/ RIVER THOMPSON
First printed in our sister publication France Today
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