A soup that tells different stories

The name Vichy seems to have made an impression in my mind after seeing the movie Casablanca, set during World War II with German-occupied France, non-German occupied France or Vichy France, and the strong current of French patriotism that runs through. I saw Casablanca at about the same time-period when a good friend of mine from New Jersey in graduate school introduced me to the American chef, Julia Child who popularized French cooking in America. And, one of the first recipes we discussed from her book was for a soup called, vichyssoise. It just sounded so French, especially in the backdrop of the movie.

 

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To the best of my knowledge when in France I could find no sign of a soup called vichyssoise, quite consistent with Julia Child’s remark that it might be an American invention1, one of the few, if not the only one of its kind that makes its way into her classic French cookbook. Here is a method to make a simple version of the soup adapted from Julia Child’s cookbook:1

 

Potatoes

 

Leeks

 

Water or chicken stock

 

Salt

 

Butter

 

Wash and clean the potatoes and leeks - I used an equal proportion of potatoes and leeks. Peel the skin from the potatoes and cut into medium-sized pieces. Cut the leeks into small pieces using mostly the white and some of the green part. Add the cut potatoes and leeks into a heavy bottom pan and add enough water or stock to cover the vegetables. Add salt to taste. Simmer for about 40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Strain the vegetables from the liquid, and purée. Add the purée back to the pan, and add enough cooking liquid to reach the desired consistency. Just before serving, add some butter to attain a silkier texture and richer flavor. Alternatively, just plain good milk or eggs beaten with a generous amount of milk could be used towards the end to finish the soup. Check for seasoning. The soup can also be served cold making it summer appropriate.

 

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While I couldn’t find  vichyssoise in France, I did find soups with a potato and leek base, only they had a different name in keeping with old French cookbooks. Potage Parmentier or velouté Parmentier is just that, a soup named as a tribute to the man who popularized potatoes in France in the late 18th century, and is made of potatoes, leeks, butter or rich milk.

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Velouté Parmentier in a restaurant in south west France

Why the potage Parmentier is called by the very French sounding name, vichyssoise, outside of France, remains unclear. And, what does it mean when there are similar soups in composition and preparation that tell a different story because of their different names?

Reference:

1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume 1) by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette  Bertholle.

Post Script:

In writing this blog post, I was thinking of my friend's reference to vichyssoise as a soup he recalls his mother making and serving him chilled. So, I found it, strikingly, more than a coincidence when in an attempt to answer a reader's comment I came across a 1950 New Yorker article entitled "Diat" by Geoffrey T. Hellman that describes chef Diat's 1917 reminiscence of his childhood days in France when he and his brother enjoyed mixing cold milk into the potato and leek purée made by his mother and grandmother to drink during the summers.

16 thoughts on “A soup that tells different stories

    1. Bala

      Thanks. Yes, potatoes and leeks do seem very French, as they apparently are in France, its just the matter with the names that seems to pull a story in different directions.

      Reply
  1. Bala

    An email comment from a reader:

    Potato-leek soup is very old and practically a national dish of France- it is the addition of cream that makes it "vichyssoise", which was an American tweak, and Americans often ate it chilled (like my Mom).

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Yes, you're right, and as I note in the post, the potato-leek soup is a very old French dish - I found it listed in an early 20th century cookbook but it is likely much older, as early as late 18th century, given the Parmentier connection.

      I recall you telling me about your mom making this soup and serving it chill - thank you for sharing!
      I recently read an old French chef recalling his childhood days, when he and his brother used to enjoy mixing cold milk into the potato-leek soup base to drink during summer.

      Also, Julia Child adds in her book that the vichyssoise is served with some water cress puréed into the soup before it is served.

      Reply
  2. nirmala

    A very comforting simple soup. Not had it cold although we live in a tropical country where we have long summers. A must try. Recollect enjoying the warm leek and potato soup at Duplex restaurant in Pondicherry. They served it with cream .
    The history behind the soup is not only interesting but also enriching. Next time I order this soup this post will run in my mind I am sure! A must try recipe.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you!

      Yes, I do think this soup when served chilled is particularly good during the summer.

      The Pondicherru reference is interesting though not surprising given the French influence.

      Reply
  3. Bala

    Facebook comment from a reader, José Luiz Borges:

    Dear Bala, there is no reference to this delicious soup in the classical Escoffier's Ma Cuisine. I think it is really a modern creation

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear José,

      Thank you for your kind words, and for taking the time to reference Escoffier.

      You’re right, Escoffier’s Ma Cuisine, does not have a recipe for vichyssoise, however, Ma Cuisine (1934) describes a similar if not identical soup called Purée Parmentier, as does Escoffier’s earlier book, Le Guide Culinaire (1903) which calls it Purée or velouté de pomme de terre or parmentier. An even earlier reference, described as potato and leek soup, is in the book, Le livre de cuisine (1869, English translation) by chef Jules Gouffé.

      The first reference, it seems, to the potato and leek soup as vichyssoise appears to come from a 1950 New Yorker article by Geoffrey T Hellman about the Head Chef at the Ritz, Louis Diat who is quoted as naming the potato and leek soup as crème vichyssoise glacée. He is further quoted reminiscing about his childhood days in France when he and his brother used to add cold milk to the potato and leek soup to drink during the summer.

      Clearly, two similar if not identical soups, having a relatively long history in France, perhaps one was served cold in addition to warm unlike the other. But I wonder why different names in the US and France, and I wonder how Vichy became a part of the story.

      Bala

      Reply
      1. Bala

        José responds:

        50 years ago, cold vichyssoise use to be served during my family' s feast dinners. Brazilian society and our formal eating habits were strongly influenced by French culture.

        Reply
        1. Bala

          José, that is interesting to know especially with reference to the thought process that vichyssoise might be a North American spin-off of the classic French potage Parmentier. Now, I only wish I was part of your family feast! Perhaps we could try to recreate some of it when we get-together next time!

          Reply
  4. Bala

    Another Facebook comment from a reader, Sarah Copeland:

    Here in Canada it is often served at summer weddings. I like to make the soup base ahead and chill it then I whip chilled cream to firm peaks and fold it together just before serving. I serve it in a glass bowl rimmed with edible flower petals and sea salt.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Sounds delightful, and I'm not sure if it's because I know you're a chef but it does seem to have a chef's touch.

      Reply

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