A tale of green soup

by Kellie Wyllie

THIS WEEKEND UNWRAPPED at a frenzied pace. It’s Friday night at last. The sun set just after four, although the sky gave way to dusk an hour before that. Gage, our black border collie–lab, sits at the front door and demands a walk; his wiry tail twitches back and forth. The fridge looks empty except for a box of orange juice, a head of celery, and four chorizo sausages. But the vegetable garden has kale and leeks, and the freezer is stocked with chicken broth. A basket of potatoes and a braid of garlic hang in the garden room. I decide to make a pot of caldo verde soup. I put a bottle of white wine in the fridge to chill before Gage and I walk to buy a baguette from a small grocer in Cadboro Bay, a neighbourhood of Saanich.

The Portuguese claim caldo verde as a national dish. The green soup originated in the Iberian Peninsula, the southernmost region of Europe split between Spain and Portugal. Iberia is famous for cork oak, the last lynx population in Europe, and black pigs. Under strict agricultural regulations, each pig requires a minimum of five acres of organic oak woodlands or savannah to graze. The sustainable agro-ecosystem—Spanish, holm, gall, and cork oak trees—can be traced back to the arrival of the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC. The pigs feed on the acorns dropped by the oak trees, and in turn, they protect the biodiversity created by the establishment of the ancient farming system.

Iberian ham (jamón ibérico) and pork is renowned as the finest in the world. When the Romans drove the Phoenicians out, they carried on the existing agricultural traditions. The Roman Empire collapsed; yet, as so often happens, many cultural practices remained. The recipe for chorizo sausage is one custom that the Iberians passed down from generation to generation.

In the summer of 2016, my husband and I hiked the Iberian Peninsula for a week. We trekked by pastoral farm after pastoral farm where the pigs are raised. We walked between waist-high stonewalls on paths that divided farmers’ fields. We marvelled at the cleanliness of the land, the healthiness of the animals, and the sustainability of the agricultural practices, and we admired the oak trees, especially the cork oaks with their burgundy trunks where the bark had been removed. The movement to protect farmland and farm animals in Iberia seemed to be more advanced than our efforts on Vancouver Island. Some days we would stop in a village for lunch and order a bowl of caldo verde soup. Every restaurant served its own version of the green soup garnished with chorizo sausage made at a nearby farm or in a small salumeria.

I REMEMBER EATING my mother’s potato-bacon soup the winter when I was five. We lived in a mill town of about 600 people on the Columbia River in the Selkirk Mountains. The sawmill had burnt down that winter, and the whole town struggled financially. Most families had chicken coops. When my father cleaned ours, he spread a layer of sawdust to counter the stench of the chicken manure. He grew vegetables in the front and back yards, the potatoes on mounds of soil. I don’t know where my parents bought the back bacon, or even if they bought it at all. Perhaps they traded 50 pounds of potatoes for 50 pounds of bacon? A huge piece must have hung frozen in the woodshed, because all winter, we ate potato-bacon soup for lunch and dinner. The pork ran out near the end of the season, and it simply became potato soup. I don’t recall if I tired of the taste, but I do remember that two or three times a week my mother would pull hot loaves of bread from the wood stove oven. After it cooled a little, she would pass us thick slices on which we spread butter churned from cream from the neighbour’s cows.

illustration of a bowl of caldo verde and spoon
Illustrations: Samantha Wey

I am an organic gardener. The potatoes that I chop into half-inch cubes for the caldo verde were grown last summer in 10-litre felt bags. There are five raised vegetable beds in my garden, but I grow the potatoes in bags so that I don’t need to rotate the crop each year. I use the raised beds for the year-round gardening that’s possible here on the West Coast. This year, I planted red bliss potatoes on the recommendation of an article about caldo verde in Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The waxy potato holds its shape, and the sugar and starch content is lower than other potatoes like Yukon Gold.

The leeks in my garden resist my attempt to harvest them as their long white roots grab onto the soil. I knock the two plants that I pulled for the soup against a stone wall to get rid of the dirt. I clip off a dozen lacinato kale leaves before I head back to the kitchen. Gage prances beside me. The long, thin kale leaves are dark green, almost black. I like this type of kale because it is the easiest to chiffonade—stems removed, stacked, rolled, and sliced into thin strips.

In the kitchen, I peel the garlic and slice the leeks. I bought heads of garlic from Salt Spring Seeds, a small company committed to the preservation of heirloom plants. I peel the chesnok garlic’s papery pink-and-purple striped cover and mince the cloves. I rinse the leeks under cold water, cut off the roots and thick green stems, and quarter and slice the white stalk that’s left. The garlic, leek, and small-diced celery go into a heavy red enamel soup pot, where I added olive oil a few minutes earlier to heat. Delectable aromas infuse the air.

The Portuguese use collards to green their soup. On the same farms where the pigs are raised, there are often a few citrus trees, a vegetable garden, some chickens, and sometimes an Andalusian horse or two. Each day that we hiked, we experienced a blend of complex farm odours—manure mixed with the fragrance of lemon and orange blossoms and earthy soil. Most farmers on the stony peninsula still butcher and cure their own meat, another nod to their commitment to sustainable agriculture. To make the chorizo sausage, farmers, butchers, and chefs empty, clean, and fill pig gut with chopped pork, pork fat, and smoked paprika.

The garlic for my caldo verde grew in a raised bed bordered by a wattle fence woven with willow whips. Wattle fences were popular in medieval Europe. The Cluny Museum in Paris uses them to edge raised beds planted with the same flowers that are woven into the 16th century Flanders tapestries inside. Willow loves to grow—copse it in the fall, and by spring it will have sent out a multitude of long, flexible branches ready for harvest early in the summer.

I wove my wattle fence using willow that my friend Joan grows in large quantities for basketry and live-willow fence installations. Its double twill pattern undulates in a semicircle around an old Douglas fir stump and a rugosa rose—roses love garlic. At the end of October, I planted garlic cloves between rows of winter carrots. Some time in November, the cloves will send out long, thin leaves, but the garlic won’t be ready to harvest until the following August or September.

Once the celery, leeks, and garlic in the red pot are soft and begin to brown, I add the kale, potatoes, and chicken stock. The chickens for the stock come from Thistledown Farm on Salt Spring Island—a Gulf Island known for agriculture and art. Thistledown is one of several farms nestled high in Rainbow Valley between Mount Maxwell and Mount Erskine. The view east from Thistledown overlooks Georgia Strait and the Coast Mountains. It is a small farm with two horses, Jane the dog, and numerous barn cats. A large flock of market chickens arrive as day-old chicks twice a year. The hay fields provide mulch for the vegetable gardens and food for the horses. There are fruit trees, short white columns of beehives (which threatened to swarm last year), and—like almost everywhere on the West Coast—blackberries. Vehicles ranging from a pickup truck to a restored yellow Volkswagen Beetle dot the driveway. The immaculate farmhouse looks like a home that Martha Stewart might choose to live in. LeeAnne runs the farm. She’s 50-something and 5-11, with legs as long as the Thompson River.

Twice a year, we get a call from LeeAnne telling us that the chickens are at the abattoir and will be ready for pick up at the farm later that day. She used to raise Cornish cross hens, a large white breed. They took about 12 weeks to grow, but she noticed that she lost approximately 25 percent of her flock before they matured. She made inquiries to a local vet, who explained that the Cornish cross had been bred for its large breasts. He suspected that the birds died from heart failure—the oversized breasts are too large for their tiny hearts. LeeAnne questioned the ethics of raising suffering chickens and switched to sassos, a smaller heritage breed from Quebec. The rusty-red chickens take four weeks longer to mature. To a farmer, that’s a risk because it means the chickens have to be fed for an additional month, and the cost is passed onto the consumer. It takes time and money to raise sustainable food, and in this fast-paced world, we often no longer have the patience to wait.

We arrive at Thistledown with a cooler filled with ice packs and pick up the fresh chickens, which we will finish butchering at home. Like the farmers on the Iberian Peninsula, my husband and I waste nothing. After the chicken has been cut into thighs, drumsticks, and breasts, we gather the leftovers, which include the necks, wing tips, breastbones, and skin. I make a bouquet garni of thyme (from the herb garden), whole coriander, and peppercorns. I put it all into our 20-quart stockpot, add vegetables and water, and bring the ingredients to a slow simmer. I cook the stock for several hours, cool it, and remove the layer of pale-yellow fat that collects on top and sieve the broth before I bottle it in one-litre canning jars and freeze it.

I THINK I KNOW when I became aware of the ethical issues that surround the sustainability (or unsustainability) of our food. In my early 20s, I ate dinner at The Cannery, an elegant restaurant on the docks in East Vancouver. I sat at a linen-covered table in the elegantly converted industrial building that looked out over Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains. Dressed in black and white, the waiters set the tables with cutlery, including deep-bowled soup spoons and fish knives. The fish knife surprised me with its scalloped blade and small end point, which could pick small bones from cooked fish. I discovered that the fish knife’s thin blade could slip between the fish skin and flesh and separate it without a whisper of protest.

I grew up a Catholic, and Catholics eat fish on Friday, so eating fish wasn’t new to me. I ice-fished with my father when we lived in the Selkirk Mountains. I remember how we’d bundle up in layers of clothing before we set out on a gravel road to the lake where we caught rainbow trout. As soon as they were gutted and cleaned, we threw two or three into melted butter in a cast iron pan that we had heated over a small fire on the shore. Nothing compares to the smell of fresh, pan-fried fish sizzling in butter on a cold winter day.

drawing of a trout frying in a pan

But The Cannery menu was more exotic. I had never heard of fish mousse, moulles marinière, or salmon wellington served with pinot noir butter. I choose turtle soup as a starter. I don’t know what compelled me to make that choice, but I do know that I regretted it after I chewed the first small cube of turtle meat. I wondered why I chose turtle. I knew that they had inhabited the earth’s oceans for over 65 million years and that they often live to 100 years or more. I knew the turtle had been severely over-harvested the world over. And yet there I sat, devouring a morsel of one.

I can remember which side of the table I sat on, the shape and colour of the bowl, and the cutlery the waiter brought. I think about how unlikely it is to remember a bowl of soup eaten 40 years ago until I realize it was the moment that I became aware of the cost of unsustainable practices in food production.

I LEAVE THE caldo verde to simmer while I grill the sausages on the barbeque. They were made at the Village Butcher in Oak Bay, which purchases animals from local farmers that commit to ethical food management. Once the sausage is cooked, I bring it into the house to cool while I set the table. I cut the baguette, ladle soup into two white bowls, and top the soup with the sausage. I think about discovering caldo verde in Iberia, the beauty of that landscape, the farms, and the complex connections we make with the environment and other cultures. As we sit down to the steaming bowls of green soup, Gage waits on his dog bed and whines for a taste.