A POOL of blue light, a hiss of flames, and the warming steam from hot tea as night closes in and swallows the mountains. Ah, this is the best part of the day. A wintry breeze blows cracked leaves through the shadows and makes the flames dance; cold sweat clings to tired muscles; stars begin to punctuate the blackness above – and in this hidden corner of the darkening world, a ritual is being enacted . . .
Like the best rituals, it involves darkness and fire. It was born one frosty evening on the banks of Brothers Water and has been performed in a hundred lay-bys, car parks, clearings and quiet corners countless times over the years. The most important, reviving and heart-warming ingredient of the ritual, though, is Czech cabbage soup.
There is a reason for this article and it involves complete strangers all over the world whose computer browsers alight on this website in pursuit of the recipe. The soup has been mentioned several times in various posts and will undoubtedly be referred to in the future. Unfortunately, the website I pillaged for the original recipe has, like Czechoslovakia, been swept into history so no link is possible. Lucky, I availed myself of a dog-eared hard copy before it dropped off the edge of cyberland.
First, the ritual. If you’re one of those walkers who wanders down from the tops after a hard day’s hiking and pulls off his or her boots, chucks them in the car then drives home – pause right there. Try this instead.
Get out the camping stove as the evening shadows lengthen. Boil a billy of tea. And while your cold hands are warming on the pan and that scented steam is reviving your soul, heat up some soup. It might be homemade and retrieved from the freezer like mine; it might come out of a tin or a packet. Just sit there in the draughts and the fading light – and reflect. Soak up the remains of the day. Listen to the wind in the trees and the sounds of the night. Watch the lights twinkling through distant farmhouse windows and feel the penetrating darkness. Then, slowly, eat your soup.
You’ve become a wayfarer, which is a step up from a walker. You don’t really need to go home. You’re a drifter, a nomad, a wanderer, even a vagrant. Your pool of blue light and your bubbling soup is all you require. The hawthorn hedge is your roof, the turf your carpet. And the blackness of night is the medium you share with the mountains and your dreams.
So . . . Polevka Kapustova S Uzen m Masem – the recipe. First read this comment from the unknown author, posted years ago on a website that has passed into oblivion:
“This one just cries out Czech – hearty, thick, north European, smelling of the Sumava somehow. Dream of Libuse and floating up the Moldau.”
Great stuff. Takes me back to Prague and the sausage shop on Karmelitska every time. Tram 23 to Malostranke Namesti, a bag of sausages off two jolly ladies who always manage to sell you more than you need, then round the corner for a pint of Staropramen in Jo’s Bar to chill out and dream of Scottish mountains or Great Gable’s South Traverse. Here we go:
- Half a firm winter cabbage (Stonehead, Christmas Drumhead or Celtic if you’re an allotment type like me, or just something from Asda if you’re not)
- A bit of butter
- One onion, chopped
- A third of a cup of flour
- One and a half pints of ham or chicken stock
- One handful of dried mushrooms soaked in a cup of hot water (all Polish delis sell dried mushrooms. Good one on Stonebridge, Darlington, if you’re in the area – but you’re probably not)
- Freshly ground black pepper and a bit of salt if you need it
- Half a pound of ham cut into small cubes (kielbasa sausage does the job just as well. Or Czech sausage from the two jolly ladies if you happen to be in Prague)
- Chop the cabbage finely
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan, toss in the onions and saute until soft, then sprinkle in the flour and brown, stirring attentively
- This always takes longer than you think, but it is worth the wait
- When well-browned, pour the stock in all at once, whisking
- Add the mushrooms and liquid
- Add the chopped cabbage, seasoning, and ham. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Great for freezing.
So that’s a vital service performed. Good mountain food for tired mountain people at the close of a long mountain day. Next time someone lands on this website looking for Polevka Kapustova S Uzen m Masem or Czech cabbage soup they won’t be disappointed.
Perhaps I’ll tackle Polish borscht next. That’s a refreshing dish to eat in the wilds. But I’m drawing the line at the person who blundered here using the search term: “Why is my Dundee cake flat?” Someone else can sort that one out.