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Swiss Federal Fast Soup

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Every year my uncle Harvey summons the family around a converted wash boiler where he cooks the most delicious soup. The occasion is Swiss Federal Fast Day, a national holiday in Switzerland. See how we cook 20 gallons of soup from start to finish.

We Valaisians have a healthy mistrust for governmental authority. The national hero of Valais, Farinet, was a counterfeiter shot down by the Federal police. His life and times are still celebrated in Valais a hundred years later. If Valaisians were French, they would be Corsicans. If British, they'd certainly be Irish. Or Sicilian. Or Texans.

Although I've never seen one Swiss not eat on that day, I assume there must be some who do, as an act of respect for our Federal government. It will then be little surprise to hear that in my Valaisian family, we meet every year on Swiss Federal Fast Day, the third Sunday in September, to eat soup at my uncle Harvey's. But this year, I offered him to help out with the soup and take a few pictures for you guys. The recipe for this peasoup encore is found in the serious pea soup article.

I arrived on Saturday night at uncle Harvey's chalet. Years ago he had bought a tiny traditional barn we call here mazot and converted it into a large chalet. Harvey likes to invite people for parties and has a large outdoor kitchen and covered gallery - the whole thing is designed to receive guests. If he were an American gentleman, this would be called a club house. But the original building is centuries old and in Valais most families have one were they retire on the week end. They just call it le chalet.This is not a sign of special wealth, as 50 years ago most Valaisians had a nomadic lifestyle in the sense that they spent the warmer part of the year up there in the mountains with their cattle and wintered down in the valley. Nowadays very few people do that, but the same moutain shacks have been turned into places of leisure to get away from the town's hustle and bustle.

Aunt Danielle had cooked up foie gras and fondue bourguignonne, the one with the vats of boiling oil on the table where you dip pieces of meat. This barn has come a long way!

Under uncle Harvey's intense gaze, ...

... we started peeling the root vegetables carrots, potatoes and celeriac with my aunt Danielle.

Then the most important part, washing and rewashing the split peas until the water comes clean. We used 3 kg (6lbs) of peas and we have to leave the water running for a good 30 minutes before it became clear. We left the peas soaking for the whole night, which is not really necessary. But the washing rids them of the acquae fartorum, and that is not an option. You need to discard the soaking water too.

The next day, we woke up early to start our soup. Guests were due for noon, soup would be served at 1PM and it needs to cook for at least 3 hours.

Uncle Harvey always makes his soup into an old converted copper wash boiler. He had the inside lined with tin to avoid any copper poisoning, and somebody made him an oil bath in a false bottom between the burner and the soup, to prevent any hotspots that might burn the food. Capacity : 80 liters / 20 gallons. We positioned the cooker back against a huge moss-covered rock right outside his chalet, and we started cooking with the gentle ring of cowbells from the cattle grazing next door - a very peaceful kitchen.

After adding a glass of oil into the hot cooker, I direct uncle Harvey to start making some serious pea soup. In go a kilogram of onion and 3 leeks.

We toss them for about 10 minutes untilt they are soft and start to brown.

Harvey adds the carrots, potatoes and celeriac we prepared the night before...

... filling up the pot slowly ...

... until a shower of split peas covers everything.

Water from the garden hose generates clouds of steam.

Sage, savory, tyhme and parsley. Half of it was neatly tied into the washed outer leaves of leeks, making little bundles that could be easily plunged into the soup and later removed. 15 minutes before serving I snipped the other half and added it to the soup.

We tie all four herbs-and-leeks parcels to a single string before they are plunged into the pot...

... and then add the cook-in ham bone with its meat on. A much larger ham will come later, but as it is already cooked we'll cook that one only for an hour. This here ham will be overboiled and liquefied with the soup to add taste and body.

Uncle Harvey turns the heat up until, half an hour later, the soup starts to boil.


We boil 500grams (1 pound) of Parmesan with the soup to improve its body.

Uncle Harvey being a fiend for garlic, I bought him fresh garlic from Lautrec, the best we find in Europe. We put 2 whole heads, peeled and crushed, into the boiler.

While the soup cooks, we prepare the starter. As a starter we prepare 40 beignets de Vinzel, those delicious Swiss cheese fritters I wrote about last year. That's two fritter per guest on average. I had spent quite some time the day before at the cheesemonger's to select a four kinds of unpasteurized milk cheeses from alpine meadows that would melt nicely. We use 1.6kg of cheese (3 pounds). The cheesemonger grated them coarsely, otherwise it will jam our machine, he had said. We add 12 eggs ...