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We all got very excited in the 1990s about “functional” foods – the Japanese fad for products which were specifically designed to enhance our health as well as please our palates. Current examples would be the strange dairy emulsions which claim to lower our cholesterol or the drinking of cranberry juice to ameliorate bladder complaints. Of course, we’d always had functional foods, whether it was the All-Bran we watched our grandparents masticate or the vitamin D with which margarine was fortified to avoid rickets.
To these we can now add the outbreak of vivid green soups in supermarkets. This ready-made range has a base of peas, to which are added other veg such as spinach, cabbage, leeks and the trendy edamame beans. Each spoonful gives us a sense of nutritional piety as we imagine the vitamin C, iron and other goodies we’re ingesting. Indeed the very name of Marks and Spencer’s version, Super Green Soup, hints at this sense of restorative magic. We assembled 15 pea-based soups to see if their taste lived up to their perceived benefits.
The Discerning Litigator (DL), the Gourmet Celeb (GC), the Lebanese Gastronaut (LG) and the Gluttonous Pig (GP) comprised the panel. All agreed that out of more than 40 of these tastings, this was probably the worst. In a summer soup you look for vitality but instead this is what we found: “superannuated”; “terminally tired”; “dead as a dodo”; “zombie soup”. In fact I think we discovered a new category – dysfunctional foods. Still, one good product and two very acceptable ones did emerge.
It would be unfair to imagine that ambient jars and cans could deliver the same fresh taste as chilled cartons. But they seemed to lack any vital signs. Free & Easy Organic Green Pea Soup (“What did I just swallow?” LG) and Suma Organic Pea Soup (“aged and medicinal” GP) were canned. Essential Organic Pea Soup (“stale stock-cube taste” DL) came in a jar. Tesco’s Finest Petit Pois Courgette & Crème Fraîche Soup was a particularly disappointing outcome for some promising ingredients: “unpleasant, like stale milk” (GP). Waitrose’s Chunky Summer Greens Soup fared better but we felt that the addition of provolone, a good idea in principle, had been overdone: “a real meal – but off-puttingly cheesy” (GC).
So, to our two runners-up. The first comes from Yorkshire Provender, an enterprising company situated in North Yorkshire and founded by two chefs, Belinda and Terry Williams. Their Pea & Spinach Soup with Coriander was enriched with both double cream and soured cream but remained stable in the plastic container and didn’t taste too fatty. Our only carp was that they’d slightly slipped with the mint in the batch we tasted: “fresh, well- seasoned” (GP); “mint soup with pea! But refreshing” (GC).
The other is New Covent Garden Soup Co.’s Petit Pois & Mint which benefits from the simplicity of its ingredients: petit pois, potatoes, onions, butter, mint and seasoning: “lovely fresh pea taste (GP); “good summer soup” (LG).
But our clear winner was as super as its name asserted: Marks and Spencer’s Super Green Soup. This is a first-class product, made with a superior vegetable stock and a cornucopia of veg, as it says on the front: “a thick soup made with Maris Piper potatoes, spinach, peas, cabbage, leeks, edamame soya beans and mint.” We all approved: “authentic vegetable stock and a zing from the fresh parsley” (GP); “whole beans and peas are satisfying” (LG); “good taste, texture and balance” (DL); “jam-packed – a bit of an adventure” (GC).
I should say that we all realise there’s a place for thick, lentil-style soups made from split peas, tasting much the same as the delicious pease pudding which we rarely seem to see these days (more’s the pity). But the products we found so disappointing all purported to be “pea” or “green pea” soups and suffered from a stale mustiness. To be avoided.
1. Marks and Spencer Super Green Soup 600g, £2.50
=2. Yorkshire Provender Pea & Spinach Soup 600g, £2.39; stockists at www.yorkshireprovender.co.uk
=2. New Covent Garden Soup Co. Petit Pois & Mint Soup 600g, from £1.98; stockists at www.newcoventgardensoup.com