Apparently I wasn’t bad at ballet. My exam certificates mainly show ‘Distinction’ and the examiners had kind comments for me, ‘Lovely footwork’, ‘neatly turned out’, ‘very engaging smile’. Interesting isn’t it how two people can view an event so differently? From what I recall that engaging smile was a rictus of fear; those examiners frightened the life out of me.
There’s more. At dancing displays I was fêted as Little Bo Peep, tripping around the hall with a crook topped with silver foil, theatrically looking for my invisible sheep. I stole the show as the spider in a duet with Little Miss Muffet, although I suspect it was my Mum’s rather marvellous spider costume that got me the vote. It was a slinky all-in-one with four newspaper stuffed legs that stuck out at right angles from my waist and thighs. They were attached to my arms with cotton so that when I raised my arms (in a balletic manner), the extra arms moved with them and I was a dead ringer for a spider. Clever, no?
The weekly ballet classes were all about pointing and pliés and pas de chat. The teacher would stalk up and down the row, tilting our chins up, patting a wayward bulging stomach and tapping us on our ’undercarriage’; ’Tuck it under!’. If only I still could. There were set dances to be learnt, one called the Tarantella which was performed with a tambourine whilst wearing a flowing skirt. I could probably still run through the opening few steps if push came to shove. It involved thwacking the tambourine forcefully onto your hip, then whirling it above your head. I think we were meant to look all passionate Italian gypsy-like and wild. Oooo I did like that one.
So, you might be wondering why you haven’t seen me in Billy Elliot?
Well, it was the Eisteddfods that did for me. I don’t know whose idea it was, but I regularly took part in these ballet competitions. I remember it all very clearly. The white tutu, the heavy make-up, the satin ballet shoes instead of the regular leather ones, the character dances with costumes…and most of all, the fear. The churning tummy, the ballet teacher sternly telling us that it didn’t matter if we forgot our routine, we should just keep dancing, anything would do, but we must never, never, stand like a rabbit in headlights in the middle of the stage. I saw a few girls do that, most of them tiny like me - I was about 6 or 7 at the height of my ballet career - but thankfully I always managed to dance through to the end. Then, when that ordeal was over, came the next one; waiting for the results. Then filing onto the stage to stand in a graceful semi-circle, the stage smile hiding the disappointment at not being placed in the top three. Dreadful. In the end I asked Mum not to take me anymore because it was all too stressful.
So, Saturdays were really not my favourite day. Which brings me to the second horror; the soup. Now my Mum was a tired woman. She worked a full week, then weekends meant catching up on the cooking and cleaning and ferrying me to ballet. No wonder she made soup. Well, kind of didn’t make it. Sort of opened a tin, or worse, opened a packet. The tinned stuff wasn’t so bad, although the charmingly named oxtail with the occasional morsel of gristle wasn’t really my favourite. The tomato soup was a bit better, but loaded with so much sugar it made my throat sore. The packet soup though, was the stuff of nightmares. Thin, tasteless and - be still my gagging throat - often with globules of unmixed powder that had escaped Mother‘s whisk. Bleurgh.
So why on earth would I want to inflict soup on my poor, defenceless children? Well, a little bit of food allergy goes a long way, and there are really not many things that a vegetarian, milk- egg- nut- and mustard-allergic child can eat. Couple that with said allergic child being, a little picky about eating vegetables, well really there is only one solution. Soup. Soup that hides a multitude of vegetables.
When I first had a go at tomato soup I was fairly certain what the outcome would be; sulky children staring at their bowls, refusing to eat. Well, I was wrong. My beaming eldest daughter informed me that it was almost as good as the stuff you get in tins from Lidl (she must have had that at someone else’s house) and my littlest allergic one happily tucked in, blissfully unaware of the hidden veg. What a success! I was tempted to execute a pirouette or two, and do a few pas de chat around the kitchen! In the end I settled for a modest curtsy, being sure to smile engagingly in the direction of the examiners.
Furthermore, you can make enormous vats of this and freeze it, so that when you get back with your children from those terrible ballet competitions, you’ll be able to soothe their troubled souls with wholesome tomato soup. Bingo.
Tomato Soup for Ballet Saturdays (This amount serves approx 6, but increase or decrease the quantities as you see fit)
Now I have made this every which way over the last couple of years. Of course the main ingredient is tomatoes, but after that you can chuck in any orangey or pale vegetable you fancy. Not green. Green is hard to hide in this soup. But sweet potato, carrot, swede, whatever you want, you just chop and chuck.
This is a soup that is kind to the careworn.
This is a soup for you.
About 6 beef tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
1 small sweet potato
2-3 button mushrooms
1 tsp of pistou if you can buy it, if not, a handful of fresh basil will do the trick
approx 500ml water
1-2 stock gluten free, dairy free, egg free stock cubes
200-500ml passata (depending on the quantity you are making)
2 tbsps tomato puree if necessary
1 tbsp sugar
Salt and black pepper to taste
- Now my dear friend Franny says my recipes are too labour intensive (I love you Franny, see you next week), so she will completely disapprove of me insisting that you remove the skins from your tomatoes. However I'm afraid I will have to insist on that, it goes back to a traumatic childhood incident (not ballet-related), and in my humble opinion your soup will be nul and void if you leave the skins on your tomatoes. I do have a simple(ish) way of doing it though. Use a knife to cut around the stalky bit of the tomato; cut a cone shape so that you remove most of the evil heart as well. Then cut your tomatoes in half and throw them into your big soup saucepan/stock pot (which should have a lid)
- Roughly chop the onions, leek, garlic and mushrooms and throw them into the pan as well. Add enough olive oil so that it won't stick to the bottom of the pan, add the tbsp of pistou (if using fresh basil, we'll add that later) and heat on a medium heat stirring occasionally. When it's all sizzling, put the lid on the saucepan, turn the heat down low and let everything sweat a little
- Do a bit of a grand jeté across the kitchen to get back to your chopping board
- Peel and roughly chop the sweet potato and the 'normal' potato
- Stir the vegetables in the pan, have you noticed how the tomato skins are beginning to curl and get a bit baggy? Stay with it
- Put the two kinds of potato into the pan, and add the 500ml of water and the 1-2 stock cubes. You should have enough liquid to amply cover the vegetables, add a bit more if you're not sure
- Now bring it all to the boil, then turn down the heat, cover and let it simmer for 15 minutes or so. You might want to do an arabesque or half a kilo of battement frappé while you wait
- Now, have a look at your tomato skins. Some will have peeled off completely, others are hanging on determinedly. This next part will have Franny groaning, but using a knife and fork, fish around in the soup and remove all the skins, it's really not that difficult
- Next, if the potato is cooked, add the fresh basil if using, and then use a hand blender to blend the soup until it's smooth. Add the passata and blend again. You can add more water if it seems too thick and isn't smooth enough
- Taste your soup, and you'll probably find that it's a bit acidic, add some sugar, you can build up to 1 tbsp of sugar gradually, or just whack it all in, up to you. Taste again, and add salt and pepper to taste. You can also now add the tomato puree if you feel that it's not tomatoey enough
- Et voila! It's done! Now how about a little soubresaut to finish?