Bisto? In Burgundy? Surely not! Yet I distinctly heard the word. And, spoken in a crowded market in Tournus, a place that is about as close to the centre of France as you can get. We were threading our way through the crowds, made more dense by the addition of the passengers from the two huge tourist ships berthed down on the quay. Several hundred geriatric Germans and Americans – separate groups from separate ships – but collectively occupying all of our Saturday morning market, leaving little room for the locals to do their shopping. I muttered through clenched teeth – yes, this can be done – ‘they aren’t even buying anything; they’re just peering at the bread and the olives and the garlic as though they had never seen such things before’.
Loaded down with baskets of melons and peaches, fennel and onions, we slowly work our way around them; our progress is not helped by the huge boule of pain de compagne Tam is trying to hold under one arm or the fact that I have overloaded myself with a precious cargo of tomatoes that I am now seeking to protect from the pushes and shoves which are inevitable when the place is this crowded. Now is the season of the ondine cournu, coeur de boeuf, rose de Berne, noir de Crimeé and the, oh so sweet, tiny cerise vine tomatoes. I have some of everything and am intent in getting them home in pristine, or at the very least, unsquashed, condition. Much to Tam’s consternation, I insist on one last stop: we can’t leave without the basil. My market man hands me a gigantic bunch as I fumble for the few centimes he is asking. I hand over the money and he immediately presses another bunch into my arms – ‘un cadeau’ – he says as he turns away to serve the next customer.
I stagger off around the corner, heading down the ancient lane that leads to the Saône and home. It is at this moment that I hear someone loudly proclaim, ‘Ahhhh! Bisto!’. I am immediately transported back to the days of the ‘wireless’, the Home Service, the Light Programme and forbidden Radio Luxembourg. This was an American style radio station that even carried advertising jingles; ‘commercial’ radio was a dirty word in the stuffy British Broadcasting Corporation world of Uncle Mac, Children’s Hour and Dick Barton – Special Agent. Secretly listening to Luxembourg was how we learned to sing along with the ‘Ovaltinies’ and swing our noses up into the air just like the Bisto Kids as we followed the imaginary vapour trail of gravy as it wafted past us. I glanced around: no noses in the air and no-one passing who looked either British enough or indeed, ancient enough, to have ever heard of the Bisto Kids – except for us. How odd!
Then, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the deepest sleep, in the middle of a curious dream, I woke up. I shook Tam hard and shouted at him to wake up too. “Wah, wah”, he cried, jumping out of bed, arms flailing, “wah’s happening?”
‘They didn’t say, ‘Ahhhh!, Bisto!”
‘Wah? Wah? Have you gone mad? What are you talking about?’
‘They said, ‘Ahhhh! pistou!’ – in the market this morning – they smelled the basil I was carrying and said ‘Ah, pistou!’’
The penny finally drops. He looks at me with hatred in his eyes and falls back into bed. He is asleep within seconds.
I lie there thinking – yes, good idea, we can have a really nice veggie soup for lunch with carrots and beans and tomatoes and courgettes and I’ll make some pistou to dollop on top. This is the French equivalent – not quite pesto, but near enough; in any case I have so much basil that I’ll have to make a batch of pesto as well. We’ll have that with some pasta in a couple of days time.
My head falls to the pillow, eyes close and peace descends again.
Summer Vegetable Soup with Pistou
For 4-6 people
300g fresh white beans (navy or cannellini)
(Or a tin of white beans to add at the end of cooking time)
300g green beans chopped into roughly 4cm lengths
200g fresh peas (or frozen)
2 waxy type potatoes (Charlotte, Agata or similar)
2 medium courgettes
Approximately 1-2 litre of chicken or vegetable stock – cubes to flavour are fine
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
(NB. Taste before adding salt as stock cubes may make the soup salty enough)
Pod the white beans, and peas if using fresh, trim the green beans and cut to length, peel the potatoes, carrots and onions. Roughly chop the potatoes and carrots into small-ish cubes of similar size, slice the onions finely. Place the onions, carrots and potatoes in a pot. Pour in enough stock to cover them and bring to the boil; lower heat to a simmer and cook gently for around 30 – 40 mins. Taste for doneness. Add the spaghetti, broken up beforehand, simmer for a further 10 minutes, then add the green beans and peas (and tinned beans if using), simmer for a final 10 minutes. Check for doneness and season to taste. Top up with more stock/water if necessary.
Optional extra – 2 blanched and peeled fine chopped tomatoes – throw these into the soup just before serving.
Pour into bowls and top with a dollop of pistou.
Hand the rest around the table
Leaves from a bunch of basil
3 crushed cloves of garlic – flatten them with the side of a kitchen knife
50g lightly toasted pine nuts (heated in a small dry pan until just beginning to turn golden)
30g fresh grated Parmesan cheese
200ml olive oil
Make separate piles of ingredients and add little of each to the mortar, crushing and grinding with the pestle and adding a few drops of olive oil as you work. Keep adding the ingredients, bit by bit, until you are satisfied with the flavour and consistency. Season if necessary.