It’s Lent. A time for abstaining from all that makes life worth living and doing large amounts of pondering all the awful things you’ve ever done while being increasingly sorry and mortified by them. As a species we’ve pretty much covered overthinking every mistake ever made and still being embarrassed by that time we called the teacher mum. Do we really need 40 days to dwell on it all – especially when all the chocolate’s been locked in the cupboard?
“Well,” one of my more philosophic friends told me when I announced my thoughts. “It’s not all about you, really.”
I asked her to repeat herself; in my head I’m used to hearing most of those words in that order most days, but the addition of the word ‘not’ was a new one.
“You’re meant to use the time to think about the things Jesus gave up for us and be reminded of the 40 days he spent in the desert, if you believe in that. Or how you can help people who aren’t as fortunate as you. And some people use it to kick start health regimes because it feels a more supportive time to start.”
I would hazard a guess that from the dawn of consumerism, Lent hasn’t been the most commercially profitable season. This is why you don’t see supermarkets getting themselves worked up over it; no matter how good your tagline, austerity just isn’t sexy: “This isn’t just any cabbage in plain boiling water; it’s M & S cabbage in plain boiling water.” Er, no thanks.
You know what is sexy? Chocolate. Slow motion shots of melted chocolate ribbons dripping off spoons and carefully curated piles of crumbly chocolate lumps, tumbling over each other in a carefree way. ‘Quick’, advertisers ordered, ‘get the Easter eggs out to stop people remembering they’re meant to be abstaining from shopping. Let’s spend these 40 days of Lent bombarding the suckers with almost indecent images of chocolate instead! We’ll tell them that they deserve to eat it all, even though we’ve just spent all of January telling them that they’re disgusting pigs who need to lose weight. Hide those diet pills – we’ll need them back on the shelves literally the day after Easter!’
Nowadays, the reasons for participating in Lent may be countless and, as evidenced by supermarkets’ increasingly early Easter egg advertising, society’s attitudes to Lent might vary, but a few hundred years ago Lent was taken very seriously indeed. The early Catholic Church instructed its members that there were numerous ‘meatless’ days in the year which must be observed, including Lent but also Wednesdays and Fridays and various other fast days. The fasting was designed to encourage Christians to think about God, as well as show their unquestioning devotion to the Church. Early Lenten tradition was an amorphous mishmash of ideas about what could and couldn’t be eaten, and how often it may or may not be eaten, but by the 6th century the rule was to eat only one meal in the evening on fast days. That meal could contain no meat, butter, milk, cheese or eggs. This very severe set of rules lessened as time went on until Lent became a time to give up meat, but not necessarily limit oneself to one meal a day. To this day, the Church continues to instruct people on fasting protocol – in 1966 Pope Paul VI reaffirmed in the Paenitemini that Fridays were to remain penitential times where no meat (other than fish) could be consumed.
So, with my friend’s words ringing in my ears, I began to think about Lent a bit more and how I could selfishly twist it to suit my needs. I know, probably not what she had intended, but that’s what lazy proselytizing gets you. I decided that in honour of the first week of Lent, I would make a vegetarian meal from history. Not just a meatless Lenten recipe designed to make me repent my sins and long for the return of chicken dinners, but a truly wholesome vegetarian dish.
I was temporarily transported back to my primary school where the school dinners were amazing – proper Victorian style puddings and huge portions of mash and gravy, regardless of what the main meal actually was. The only trouble was my parents didn’t trust the safety of any meat that might have come into contact with beef, having endured the BSE outbreak of the 80’s and 90’s. As a result I experienced something I affectionately think of as ‘enforced selective vegetarianism’ but at the time I bitterly described as ‘mum won’t let me eat school dinners, even thought everyone else does and the meat isn’t that grey’. I vowed that this meal would be nothing like limp cheese sarnie lunch replacements and that it would be a meal in its own right.
Enter Mrs Jean Oliver Mill. In 1909 she wrote one of the first Scottish cookery books dedicated to promoting vegetarianism: The Reform Cookbook. At the time, there were some members of society who felt uneasy with certain common practices – eating meat and drinking alcohol, for example. These people were known as reformers and they had a problem with meat eating for various reasons: religious, ethical, monetary and health-related. Somewhat predictably, their call to ‘reform’ society’s eating habits were met with ridicule by many as Mrs Mill attests: “a vegetarian dare hardly sneeze without having one down upon him with ‘I told you so’ and ‘that’s what comes of no meat.'”
The Reform Cookbook was not only aimed at reformers looking to spruce up their diet, but housekeepers who wanted meat-free alternatives to summer lunches when the heat from the day would cause rotting meat to putrefy and stink. It was also a decidedly Scottish book; Mrs Mill commented that most of the cookbooks she had encountered were aimed at English audiences and though she bore no ill-will to the English, she was fed up of not understanding certain English phrases or quantities just as an English grocer wouldn’t understand a “Scotch lass who came in asking for a muckle broon pig tae haud butter.” I mean, she was right: first person to guess it right wins a fiver (unless you’re Scottish, in which case I’m not playing this particular guessing game with you!)
Brazil soup seemed to be the perfect starter meal for a fledgling veggie: it sounded unusual and more interesting than other veggie soups (yes, even the ones that think they’re exciting, like red pepper) and, most compellingly, it wasn’t just a meat-free version of a meal. Oh – and it didn’t contain mushrooms. Win-win.
It also, weirdly, didn’t contain that many vegetables either. In fact, it was fairly typical of the recipes in The Reform Cookbook in that Mrs Mill was genuinely concerned with promoting a healthy and nutritious lifestyle using as many available meatless resources as possible. That included veg, of course, but it didn’t limit it to veg alone. I think I’d been expecting the soup to have 80,000 different types of vegetables in it and served in a hollowed out pumpkin with spoons whittled from celery sticks.
First, I roasted 500g of brazil nuts and then ground them in a food processor. Well – I say I ground them, but really I ended up just chopping most of them up because my food processor is old and blunt and I felt a bit sorry for it – the brazil nuts just laughed in the blades’ faces and wouldn’t grind down into anything more than gravel size. Mrs Mill says you should pass the nuts through a ‘nut mill’, whatever one of those is, to achieve a nice sandy consistency but Argos didn’t have any nut mills in stock in the half hour window I had between getting to a shop and picking my daughter up from nursery, so half-hearted gravel it was. I added the brazil nuts to a stock of haricot beans, celery and onions and let it cook for six hours. What?! Did early 19th century vegetarians not have social lives? Did they not work? Surely they had better things to do that watch a pan of boiling nuts bobbing around for a quarter of the day?
Apparently not. I actually fell asleep while this was cooking, only to be woken by my husband later with the worried face of a man who knew that if he wasn’t careful with his wording there’d be two types of nuts boiling in the pan.
“I know you asked me to keep checking on it, and I did. But I left the lid off for a bit and when I went back…well…I’m sorry, but it’s turned into a bit of a gruel…”
It really had. I’ve never written a cookbook, least of all a cookbook designed to convert the doubting masses to a new style of eating, but I’m fairly sure using the word ‘gruel’ to describe a dish is advertising suicide. No matter, it wasn’t finished yet. Maybe this was meant to happen, remember I had been meant to leave this to simmer for six hours (though I’d only managed four) – what did Mrs Mill expect to happen?!
To the gruel I added a pint of whole milk and gradually stirred it in. As I did so the gruel eased up a little and became much more like a thick stew. I added a bit more milk so I could strain it through a colander and added some chopped parsley. Though the soup now looked a whole lot more appetising and I was fairly sure this would taste quite pleasant, I made my husband try it first as his punishment for gruel-ifying it in the first place. He took a sip…
…and pulled a face.
It turns out that when you roast and then simmer brazil nuts for four hours they take on a distinctly mushroom-y flavour. Kind of earthy and rich. I felt a bit betrayed by Mrs Mill; I’d deliberately picked this soup because it was meant to be a new taste and more importantly contained no mushrooms. But here it was, slopping about in the bowl acting like the world’s most successful mushroom soup understudy.
It was also quite gritty, which was entirely my fault, but still a bit off putting nevertheless. If you wanted to try this I’d recommend putting the effort in to grinding the brazil nuts as finely as possible. It was also quite oily even though I’d not added any oil to the mixture. I’d sort of anticipated this, but was still surprised by just how much oil there was.
Overall it wasn’t a disaster. In fact, if you like mushroom soup it actually might make a bit of an interesting alternative. I could even see this being something delicious if there was some garlic, salt or chili added to it. Ironically, once the mushroom flavour had gone it even had a faintly meaty/savoury aftertaste, which I’m not sure the reformists would approve of. I’d serve this as a small starter, though, rather then a main course as the oil might put people off and, like I said, mushrooms are disgusting so who’d want a whole bowlful?
I don’t think I’ll be giving up meat for good for Easter, but I’d be willing to sacrifice brazil nut soup. Sorry, Mrs Mill – this household will just have to suffer the stench of rancid meat in the summer after all.
1 litre vegetable stock
500g brazil nuts
Chopped or dried parsley
- Roast the brazil nuts in an oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Grind the roasted nuts to as fine a powder as you can.
- Add to the vegetable stock and cook on a low heat for 4 hours, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Add a pint of whole milk and incorporate. Add more milk if you prefer a thinner consistency.
- Strain soup through a sieve (or colander if you prefer more texture.)
- Add parsley and/or croutons.