Hungry Writer makes Beetroot Soup, or how Tolstoy pipped me to the post

War and Peace

There are some projects that like a seedling battered by the rain will never grow and flourish. They might start strongly but then life happens, circumstances intervene and what seemed a good idea at the time frizzles away into a “might have been.”

My historical novel “Daughters of the Eagle” was one of those. Set in Poland in 1863, it told the story of the Stefanowski family, concentrating on the women and how the lives of the mothers affected those of their daughters. Maria, became a terrorist, smuggling sticks of dynamite under her petticoats; in contrast her daughter Mimi, dreamed of marrying a Russian Prince and being presented at Court, to be accepted by the very people her mother was working to destroy. Mimi’s own daughter, Hannah, and her family were caught up in the Second World War and its aftermath, when Poland once again lost its independence to Russia.

A sprawling canvas, the action of the book moves across Europe and spans a century of change. It took years of research- I still have the notes in boxes in my office- and when it was finally done Historical Novels were well and truly out of fashion. Undaunted, I decided to turn what I had into a radio serial. I wrote an outline and sent it to Peter Leslie Wilde at the BBC.

And it was here that Fate, or Tolstoy, intervened.

The proposal came back with a note saying that he very much liked my idea and would have taken it on had it not been that he was just starting an adaptation of “War and Peace.” L L L

After reeling from one of the “best” rejections of my life, after all you can’t compete with Tolstoy, all was no lost and some years later “Daughters of the Eagle” became “Shadows on the Grass.”

Shadows on the GrassThis is a much shorter book and I didn’t use much of the final third. The last chapter eventually became a short story, an account of a family Christmas in a tall thin house on St Michaels Hill. Gathered together, two immigrant Polish families celebrate in the traditional way with a feast on Christmas Eve. Just as we still do.

An essential part of the meal is barszcz-Polish beetroot soup. Borscht is the Russian version, though how different it is I’m not sure. Since this dish has come down through the family for centuries I suspect that every household has their own version.

This very easy recipe is mine.

Beetroots, not pre-cooked with vinegar, though pre-cooked without can be used in an emergency. I get mine from a friend’s allotment. I carrot, I stick of celery, vegetable or chicken stock. Peel and chop beetroots into chunks, your hands will resemble those of a chainsaw murderer, peel carrot. Put vegetables into large pot, cover with stock, bring to boil and simmer for hours, checking on the amount of liquid from time to time. The soup is ready when it tastes rich with a hint of sweetness. Discard the veg and serve in small cups. I use my blue willow pattern.

Willow Pattern cup 2

Enjoy.

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