Ode to Bean Soup

I’ve just been for a brisk walk in the park next door. We have had cold and frosty mornings, noons and evenings here in Athens for a week now. And I suddenly thought, perfect weather for bean soup. Greeks do not have a huge repertoire of soups. There’s no chicken soup for the soul in their culture; plain chicken soup simply means you’re very ill. In the old days, a hen was never slaughtered till her egg-laying days were over, and only then to make soup for a sick child or fading grandma. Adding egg and lemon to thicken and season it, is another story, and usually means a special occasion.

There’s no indigenous gazpacho, minestrone or soupe a l’oignon. No borscht, vichyssoise or even pumpkin, pea or cream of mushroom.

But where Greece excels is in its ospria — legumes or pulses. I can’t think of any other cuisine that works such gustatory magic with chickpeas, lentils or plain old white beans.

Bean soup or fasolada is often acclaimed as the country’s national dish and there are probably as many slight variations in its preparation as there are cooks. in Crete they’ll add dried orange peel and mint, in Macedonia, some hot pepper flakes, but basically the recipe just calls for carrots, celery, onion and tomatoes or tomato paste plus lots of olive oil.

As I walked, I could see Mt. Pendeli frosted with snow above the park’s silver-green olives. Mountains marry nicely with bean soup. Friends used to make a habit of celebrating their post-Christmas wedding anniversary with a climb to the refuge on Mt. Parnitha, the highest peak above the Athenian plain. The refuge supplied the fasolada, the celebrating couple would bring along smoked salmon and Moet Chandon. That was before we all got too creaky (or lazy) to exert ourselves.

But the most exalted fasolada I ever slurped was served three-quarters up Mt Olympus. On the fourth of July. About six of us had decided to climb Greece’s tallest mountain and had made the gentle ascent through magical woods to the top refuge. Though it was a lovely summer’s day, snow clumps lingered in recesses among the rocks.

It was only about three hours from Prionia to the upper refuge at Spilios Agapitos but the younger set — my son and two pals, along with a colleague from my office — collapsed after lunch. I instead was exhilarated, high on height and not at all ready to put my feet up.

So I went out for a little stroll, intending to just mosey around the lodge, drink in the view, smell the air. After 10-15 minutes, I bumped into our leader, Pericles Papamathaiou, another office friend and my guide to Greece’s mountains. He was a violinist and a poet by nature, civil engineer by profession, but I think he lived to climb.

Even from our office in central Athens, he’d spend his lunch break trotting up Lycabettus and he knew all the paths and caves on Attica’s slopes. Once he even led me to the trig point on the summit of Parnassus in a dense fog.

But that afternoon, when we met up we didn’t really mean to go all the way up Olympus. It just happened.  “Let’s go just a little further,” he said. And before we knew it we found ourselves at Skala (2,866 m), at the top of an alpine basin, ready to reach for Mytikas, the official summit.

Fortunately for me, I think, the gods had other plans. In a twinkling of an eye, the peaks disappeared, Zeus pulled out the kettle drums, and the skies opened with buckets of ice cubes. Thunder ricocheted round the huge basin and within minutes the mountainside was white, except for some exquisite purple flowers, my first gentians.

We huddled in the lee of a rock and watched this transformation in utter awe.

When it stopped, we began our descent. Going down is always much much harder than climbing up. First of all, you don’t walk, you have to trot, digging your toes into the scree at just the right angle so you don’t keel over. Pericles showed me how and it was quicker but exhausting. My two big toes kept stubbing on the tip of the boots and were so badly bruised the nails fell off months later.

There were two consolations that evening. One took the form of a superb bean soup. The other? I was so sore, I didn’t have to go back up the next day and be humiliated by NOT getting all the way to Mitikas. Apparently, the final approach is like a narrow bridge, with nothing between you and the abyss. My experience was perfect. I had got as high as I wanted and I had felt the soul of the mountain.

RECIPE

Coincidentally, I’ve just relearned an old Greek housewives’ foolproof trick for making beans tender. Soak them overnight as usual. Drain them in colander and sprinkle with a tablespoon of baking soda; rub it in with your hands and leave for half an hour. Rinse, drain and begin the soup proper.

It helps if the beans are organic and they must not be past their expiry date.

500 g/ 1lb medium white beans, preferably from the Prespes lakes

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

2-3 fat carrots, coarsely chopped

3-4 celery stalks & leaves, coarsely chopped

1 tsp hot pepper flakes

1/2 cup olive oil

1 can peeled tomatoes or 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste

veg stock or water

Put the soaked beans in cold water or stock to cover, bring to the boil and cook, uncovered, until the beans start to soften. Add the vegetables. When both beans and veg are tender, add the oil and tomatoes. Adding them earlier can slow down the tenderizing process.

I also throw in other herbs, like parsley or kafkalithra (tordyllium) and a strip of dried orange peel, if I have any, plus lots of black pepper at the end.

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