I can remember very well the disappointment when I first made a pumpkin soup. I was working in a restaurant in the City of London and somehow a pumpkin turned up. Readers from overseas may not appreciate that pumpkins, even now, are a bit of a novelty in England. I don’t remember how I came to be in possession of one but until then the only pumpkins I had seen were Halloween ones – great for carving but nobody ever dreamt of cooking or eating one.
Jean, the restaurant manager, was delirious. He exhaled the words “soupe à la citrouille” with an extraordinary wistfulness. A childhood in Provence, the scent of bougainvillea and oleander and a pot of pumpkin soup simmering gently on the stove all hove into view. Strangely, Jean was not disappointed with the pale yellow pap that I produced from this inspiration. Perhaps the pumpkins in Provence were no more exciting than the watery, pale-fleshed and tasteless example that had provoked this effort.
It was five years, at least, before I made another pumpkin soup. Paul Bocuse, another Frenchman, was my mentor. There was a photograph in his La Cuisine du Marché of a whole pumpkin in which the master had made his soup. All you had to do was cut a hole in the top, remove the seeds, replace them with a mixture of fried croutons, Gruyère cheese and double cream, bake for three hours and take it to the table. With a mere flick of the whisk, averred Maitre Paul, the interior would turn into the most silky and delicious soup. I decided to make it at my next dinner party.
It was better than the first attempt. The aroma of baked pumpkin pervaded the house delightfully. I brought the pumpkin to the table in triumph, ignoring a telltale sag in one corner and a gentle fissure of molten cheese and cream that seeped on to the baking tray. I lifted the lid, whisked the pulp into the volcanic mass and attempted to ladle out what could laughingly be called a soup. The sagging became a general collapse. I transferred the contents to a saucepan and we persevered, eating a curds-and-whey-like mixture of rind, lumps of pumpkin and a gloopy mass that was all perfectly delicious but not quite what was intended.
Over the past 20 years, pumpkins have got better and better – Blue Hubbard, with pale green skin and deep orange flesh, is my favourite but Ironbark is close behind – and I have become more adept when confronted with a collapsing pumpkin. I have made the soup since and perfected my technique with the artful use of aluminium foil. The recipe is in my book, No Place Like Home. For the less adventurous, here is a recipe for a comforting but luxurious soupe à la citrouille, minus the oleander.
Rowley Leigh is chef at Kensington Place, London. His book ‘No Place Like Home’ (Fourth Estate) is now available in paperback.
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh
Pumpkin soup with croutons and Gruyère
Try to get Gruyère, or permissibly Emmenthal, as no other cheese will have that fondue-like stringiness and richness. A substantial soup for six.
1 stalk of celery
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
Large pinch of nutmeg
4 slices sandwich bread
100g Gruyère cheese
*Slice the onions, celery and garlic. Melt a knob of butter in a heavy saucepan and add the vegetables, stewing them gently for five minutes until they start to soften. Peel the pumpkin and cut it into small chunks before adding to the pan. Add the ginger, the nutmeg, some milled pepper and a good pinch of salt. Cover with cold water - use chicken stock if you prefer soup with a meatier flavour - and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to the gentlest of simmers and cook for 40 minutes.
*Remove the crusts from the bread and cut the slices into neat cubes of slightly less than a centimetre. Melt all the remaining butter in a frying pan - I know this seems a huge amount but the butter will clarify and much will be saved at the end. Add the bread and turn up the heat. Turn the croutons constantly in the pan and continue to fry them a good golden brown before draining in a sieve over a bowl to catch the butter which will be perfect for frying potatoes or a myriad other uses.
*When the pumpkin is perfectly tender, ladle the soup into a liquidiser and blend to an absolutely velvety smoothness. Reheat gently in a clean pan. Check the seasoning and dilute with a little hot water if necessary, although the soup should be quite thick. Serve piping hot, together with bowls of the croutons and of finely grated Gruyère.