Stone Soup

A stone. Is it magic? Or just a stone? How to get a meal out of nothing.

I’m going back a long way now, to a holiday we had when my children were young. We’d been up on the Sunshine Coast, enjoying a holiday in the early Spring. The only way to afford a holiday when you have four children is to find an inexpensive apartment. Definitely not a hotel!

This facility had a swimming pool, but it was far too cold to swim. The apartment had a kitchen which we’d put to good use, cooking our meals rather than eating out every night with four kids.

The day before our departure we were packing and getting some washing done. But the family still needed to be fed, preferably on whatever we had left. The fridge was fairly bare by this stage.

“Let’s make stone soup!” I announced to the girls. They already knew the story, thanks to Jim Henson’s “Storyteller” series. But we were going to do our own version of the traditional folk tale, which goes back hundreds of years through many cultures.

Beside the swimming pool was a rockery of grey river pebbles, some streaked with marble. Miss Ten grabbed one where the layer of marble looked like a ring. “Let’s use this one! It looks magical!”

Back in the kitchen I began the story.

A tramp was looking for shelter on a frosty night. He was tired, hungry and cold but the only house he could try belonged to an old miser. There were signs on the property saying, “Get out! No freeloaders here!”

The tramp read the notices, shrugged, and knocked on the door.

The miser opened the door. “Well?”

You have a fine house, sire,” said the tramp. “It is going to be a cold night. Could I please sleep indoors in your house? Just a quiet corner out of the wind and storm.”

The miser was furious. “Can’t you read?” he shouted. “No freeloaders!” and went to slam the door.

The tramp stuck his foot in the door.

Oh, I quite agree! You can’t be too careful! But I’m not a freeloader. In exchange for your hospitality, I will cook you a delicious soup.”

What with?” the miser asked. “All I see is you, skin, bone and rags.”

Ah, but sire, I have a magic stone. With that, I can make soup. All I need is a pot of water to put over the fire.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a river pebble, grey with a circle of marble on it.

“Just like mine?” asked Miss Ten.

“Just like yours,” I told her.

All we need is a stone. And some water in a pot… all else is seasoning.

The miser was curious. And there was the prospect of a free dinner. “Very well, then. But mind you sleep in the furthest corner. I don’t want wear and tear on the rug. My dog sleeps there.”

With the cottage door closed behind him, the tramp rubbed his cold hands together to try to bring back some feeling.

Well? Where’s this soup you promised me?” asked the miser.

I’ll need — a fire!” The tramp rushed over to the fireplace to warm his hands a little more. “And a pot to put the soup in. And some water. That’s all.”

The miser fetched a small cauldron and filled it with water from the trough outside. “Here!” he handed it over. “Do your magic! Let’s see this miracle soup! I’m betting the only miracle will be why I didn’t slam the door on your face!”

Have faith,” replied the tramp. He dropped the stone into the pot.

Well?” the miser asked. “You’ve got your stone, and your water.”

It takes time,” the tramp told him. “Do you have an old bone? Just something you would have thrown away anyway. We can stir it with that.” The tramp sipped at the contents of the cauldron. “Hmm, needs seasoning. Do you have any salt?”

Leftover barbecued chicken, picked mostly clean.

In the kitchen in the holiday apartment, Miss Ten handed me a spoon. “I think there’s some sachets of salt left over from a takeaway dinner. Here!”

“Let’s look in the fridge. Are there any old bones which we might throw away?” I already knew there were bones left over from a barbecued chicken.

Miss Ten produced the remnants of the chicken. I noted that the stuffing was still there. None of the kids would touch chicken stuffing. We’d picked the bones almost clean. It went into the pot, along with the contents of two salt sachets.

In the miser’s hut in the forest, the pot had been stirred with an old ham bone that still had some meat on it, and some salt had been added. It was coming up to heat and the tramp was enjoying the warmth of the fire. But he would have to feed the miser well if he was to stay warm this night.

The miser hovered. “Is it nearly ready?”

Just a little longer. Do you have any old, wrinkled root vegetables which you won’t eat? Just stuff for the rubbish heap. It will give the soup a bit of body. Some potatoes, perhaps. Or old, stale bread.”

The miser scurried around and found a wrinkled onion, some potatoes and some skinny root vegetables. The tramp put them into the pot. “It won’t be long now.”

Back in the apartment kitchen, Miss Ten looked in the fridge. “Here are some carrots!”

“We need those carrots,” I told her. “I’m going to peel them and we can have carrot sticks to nibble in the car while we drive to the park this afternoon. But here’s an onion. And let me peel those carrots while we wait for the soup.”

Onion ends and outer layer; shrivelled cloves of garlic. Carrot peel. Into the pot.

I decided I would use the onion for dinner, but I needed some onion in the soup too. So I peeled the onion, taking an extra layer. The onion peel went into the soup, along with the carrot peel. We tasted our soup, Miss Ten and I. She peered into the pot. “I can’t see the stone, Mummy. Is it gone?”

“No, the stone is just hiding behind the bones and the scraps. We’ll see it at the end.”

Little left but bones.

The tramp was now warm as toast and had been tasting the soup all through. It had started with a pot of water, and his magic stone. But he had added salt, some root vegetables, some old bones and other bits of rubbish that the miser would not have bothered to eat and now the soup was thick, rich and meaty from the old bones. What the miser would have thrown away would have fed a poor family for a week.

At last the tramp was satisfied. “It’s ready! And a finer soup you’ll never have had!”

The miser hurried over with a bowl and a spoon. He saw the sad look on the tramps face, and reluctantly produced another bowl and spoon for the tramp. Together they sat and enjoyed the soup. The miser exclaimed at how tasty it was, how it warmed him and what a marvel it all was. “Please, good sir,” the miser told the tramp, “I will give you a full bag of gold. Let me buy this marvellous stone from you. It is a wonder!”

The tramp smiled. All he had wanted was shelter from the storm. Now he was warm from the fire, had eaten well of the soup which had been concocted with unwanted food from the miser’s larder, and now he was offering money. But the tramp pretended to be reluctant. “Let me think on it overnight. I have been glad of this stone in my wanderings on the road. I will be sad to part with it.”

The miser was now very eager to please his guest. “You take my bed tonight. I will sleep on the mat with my old dog. Maybe after a good night’s sleep you will think more kindly on my offer.”

In our kitchen, Miss Ten tasted our soup. I was very happy with it, and glad I’d been able to produce it with the last discards of our holiday larder. The seasoning in the unwanted stuffing had added flavour and some thickening. Miss Ten exclaimed at the marvel of producing a tasty soup with just a stone, and old scraps from the fridge. But she pushed it aside and took a carrot stick instead.

A strained chicken stock, full of flavour, made from the leftover bits that would be thrown away by most people.
Rice cooked in the same stock, with bits of meat picked off the bones, and a thin-sliced sausage.
By adding more — egg, vegetables, whatever else we can scavenge in the fridge — we have a meal fit for a king.

So what happened next morning, Mummy?” asked Miss Ten, munching on a carrot stick.

I told her the rest of the story as I poured the soup into a jug and picked out the scraps of onion, carrot and chicken bone to put in the bin. Miss Ten reached for the stone and washed it under the tap. “I want to keep this,” she announced, and put it in her holiday treasures box.

Back in the cottage, the tramp spent a very comfortable night in a warm feather bed, in a hut with a burning fire. But when he woke, he knew he needed to get on his way. But the miser was reluctant to see him leave.

Please, good sir,” the miser begged. “Will you sell me your stone? Perhaps two bags of gold?”

With a great show of reluctance, the miser reached into his pocket for his stone. “Very well,” he sighed. Your gold will help me feed myself for a while, at least.” He handed over the stone as the miser eagerly pushed the gold into the tramp’s hands. And then the tramp found himself almost hurried out of the door as the miser took the little pot to the water trough to fill it up.

As he left, the tramp advised, “You will always be able to make soup with the stone, with just water. But it always improves the flavour if you add a few other things too.”

The miser was back in the cottage, door closed on the world and the tramp could see the smoke spiral higher from the chimney as the fire was stoked up to boil the pot.

The bag of gold, and the next stone…

As he walked away through the morning snow, the tramp smiled. At the bottom of the hill he paused for a moment. He bent over the river bank and picked up a stone. He put it in his pack where it nestled next to two bags of gold. He continued on his way, still smiling.

I put the jug of soup in the fridge. That night, with the rest of the onion and a small bag of rice, I made risotto. A meal conjured from nothing.

Years passed in our home, Miss Ten kept the magic stone and made many pots of soup with it. She became a skilled cook, able to improvise. When she grew up and left home to get married, she took her magic soup stone with her.

Christmas on the move

NSW Christmas Bush in the local park, anonomously decorated.

We’d planned to be in Canberra from early Monday before Christmas to babysit the kids, with school finished for the year but parents still working. We were then going to stay until Christmas Day, leaving the next day (Boxing Day) to head home. I planned to use the quiet evenings to work on writing and editing. Then we heard that we would be allowed to attend our granddaughter’s dance concert. The choir concert (a few weeks earlier) was unfortunately not open for audiences.

We had already booked accommodation and planned to drive down on Sunday, but the dance concert was midday. With a three and a half hour drive, we’d have to ‘bug out’ early from home. We also planned to bring our son Rob with us. He had an event to attend on Saturday, so the schedule was tight. We were considering leaving on Saturday ourselves, and perhaps getting Rob to come down by train. We booked the extra night’s accommodation (in a different hotel, the one for the majority of our stay wasn’t available that night).

Christmas on the road.

We discussed it all on Friday night. Rob was determined to attend his event on Saturday so we went online to book a train. We could have booked Sunday, but would have missed the dance concert to collect him from the railway station in Canberra, so we reluctantly booked his train for Monday instead. All other trains were booked out.

Within five minutes of booking (and paying for) the train ticket, Rob’s phone went off. The Saturday event was cancelled. There was an increasing Covid hot spot in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area, about as far away from us as you could get and still be in Sydney. So could he come with us after all?

“I’m working tomorrow morning on the bread run,” he explained. “It’s too late to let them know now.”

Rob decided to come down by train on Monday. That way he could work Sunday morning as well.

With the Northern Beaches Covid cluster growing in momentum we felt some disquiet setting out. Strong restrictions were coming back in, but we knew we were still okay to travel. We double-checked, loaded the car and set off. We’d packed the car carefully to allow for Rob’s seat and luggage coming back with us.

On the road to Canberra

We wore our masks whenever we got out of the car — buying fuel, buying lunch, checking in to the hotel in Canberra. The hotel was full of cricketers! There were security guards and Covid marshals on every exit, which was disconcerting.

Next day was a more relaxed bugout with perishables carefully packed in a cooler back somewhere buried under the load of Christmas presents. We were carrying gifts from the extended family to the “Canberra mob”. Fortunately we were able to park under a handy tree and wait.

Our grandson almost exploded into our car with his energy to announce their arrival.

Queuing for the concert was interesting. We wore masks, but in disease-free Canberra this seemed to be an exception. We were all expected to leave 1.5 metres between us in the queue, but inside it was full seats. We kept our masks on…

That evening there was a press conference. The border was closing at midnight. I rang Rob. Could he get down to us before midnight, by car? Nope, not packed. With the likelihood of heavier traffic than usual, the chance of him getting to us by midnight was vanishingly small. There was also the chance that we, as recent arrivals, could be sent home or, worse, made to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. Should we leave? We’d delivered our Christmas presents already.

The kids were upset at their Uncle Rob not coming for Christmas.

We took a chance. Next morning we watched the news anxiously. Yes, the border was closed but we had no problems. We’d booked time slots to take the kids to some of the public places around Canberra and decided to go ahead. If we were going to babysit, we’d have fun too, and see the sights.

Parliament House, Canberra, Australia. The actual Parliament House is under the hill with the flagpole.

First stop, Parliament House in Canberra. This is a fascinating place, I’ll write it up separately some other time. Under Covid conditions and with two young children, we weren’t going to have the usual leisurely tour. With parliament not sitting, there wasn’t a lot to see. The kids loved the Lego model of Parliament House, complete with Lego sheep on the lawn on the roof (Parliament House in Canberra is an earth-covered building). They really liked the artwork and some of the stories that various guides told us in passing.

Looking from the Australian War Memorial towards Parliament House (note the tiny flagpole in the distance). The white building just in front of the flagpole is Old Parliament House which is now a museum.

After Parliament House, we went to the Australian War Memorial. Again, our time here was pre-booked to ensure that not too many people were inside at any time. Our grandson wanted to look at the eternal flame first, he was fascinated with the burning gas bubbling up from the pool. From there we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I explained to the kids that nobody knows who is buried there, except we know he’s Australian from World War I. So for all the families who lost a brother, a son or a father in WWI, there is some peace in knowing that the man buried there could be him. He represents them all, all Australian servicemen and servicewomen who never came home.

Wall of Remembrance — each poppy represents a recent visit from someone paying respect.

We looked for names on the Wall of Remembrance then explored the displays inside. Again, with the children we knew their attention spans would be short, but we think some of what they saw was understood.

In the Australian War Memorial — a blanket crocheted by a prisoner in Stalag VIIIB, where Jeff’s father spent time in WWII. Did the same skilled prisoner also craft dad’s cap? The colours match.

The next day we took the kids to Telstra Tower on top of Black Mountain. It was on their list of places they’d wanted to see. We went up into the tower and enjoyed the view from the observation deck, amazed at the wind.

Blowin’ in the wind — it was my Marylin Monroe moment.

On the way back to the car we saw a young ringtail possum snoozing in a nearby tree. “It’s all an adventure,” we told them.

Snoozing ringtail possum in the fork of the tree.

We collected their mother and went for a drive in the bush, as requested by our grandson. We ended up in a place we’d never been to, or even heard of — Gibraltar Falls.

Gibraltar Falls.
Lady beetle on the granite boulder, Gibraltar Falls.
Mating beetles (it’s that time of the season). Gibraltar Falls, ACT.
Tiny flowers, Gibraltar Falls, ACT

We hiked down the slippery granite steps to the falls, and the kids exclaimed over a lady beetle. Little things and big things caught their attention. I got out my macro lens and we explored further, getting up close and personal to beetles, flowers and the lady beetle. It seemed a world away from coronavirus.

Christmas Eve was all about preparation. Last minute grocery shopping, and keeping the kids out of the kitchen while their father set about his one day of culinary glory in the year — cooking up a feast. Far too much food, but all of it tasty. It will all get eaten, but not necessarily today.

Gifts in various stages of being opened.
Greek-style lamb on the barbecue for Christmas dinner.
Christmas feasting done — leftovers for Boxing Day.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Stay safe, stay well.

Tomorrow we drive home, and back to higher restrictions.

Scraping Together — an Exercise in (Foodie) Improvisation

While we’re in lockdown with Covid-19, clearly we’re not travelling. During the shutdown of daily life due to this pandemic, we’ve seen photos, too many, of people discovering that food can be cooked from scratch. It brought back memories of various meals improvised while travelling.

Some years ago in New Zealand we spent a week in Lake Taupo on North Island then flew to South Island. We’d bought some groceries and I wanted to bring what we hadn’t used to our next week’s unit to save us buying replacements. Of particular concern was a part-used bag of plain flour. My son-in-law wanted me to bin it, but I was raised to avoid waste.

My son-in-law demonstrated the options by holding out both hands in front of him. “On the one hand,” he said, “there’s the $2 it cost. On the other hand, there’s the concerns of baggage security when they find a white powder in your suitcase. Hmm… $2? Or body cavity search? Decisions, decisions…”

We compromised. I found someone else to give half a bag of flour to.

On South Island we stayed in Wanaka. We’d gone in June but there had been little snow to see. However, at last on our last day in Wanaka it began to snow. The wonder of it all stopped us in our packing to go outside and play. The mad Australians who don’t see enough snow…

Then the snow got heavier. The satellite dish filled with snow and we lost all transmission, so no TV, no movies, no news. We went outside even as the sky got darker. My son and I were playing a game of outdoor chess on a large set in the snow and we realised we should stop when the board kept getting covered with snow. One spectator said to me, “You’re in check from his bishop,” and I had to drag my foot across the board to show that in fact there was not a straight diagonal path for the bishop to attack.

We’d eaten down the larder as we planned to go out to eat for our last night, but the thought of slip-sliding in the dark was too much. We stayed put and resolved to be safe but hungry.

However, as I foraged, I found a few gems. We had some butter, a couple of eggs, and the tail end of some “Maori bread” from a hangi we’d attended a few days earlier. The Maori bread was scone-like and a week old, nobody wanted any. But I managed to rejuvenate it into a sort of Maori French toast, using the eggs, some milk and a couple of sugar sachets from the hospitality bar and pan-frying it in the last of the butter. We scraped together a meal of the rather tasty French toast with some soup sachets and hot chocolate sachets. A campfire dinner, with no electronic distractions, as the snow whirled outside in a flurry of white.

A day or two later, stranded by snow on the road to Queenstown, we found some beautifully fresh produce including fresh yams, which I’d always wanted to try. We still had our tub of butter and I was told to try boiling them and serving them hot with a knob of butter.

We got back to the room. Problem – no saucepan. The electric kettle was one of the old Speedie brand ceramic things with an exposed element in the bottom. I improvised and put the yams in the kettle. It worked a treat!

Trying the local food — home-cooked and local is the best experience.

Fast forward to 2018. When we arrived in Zurich for an overnight stay, we discovered that our hotel was undergoing major renovations which had not been known at the time our travel agent booked. We were, in fact, the last guests in that hotel before they closed for major work. The restaurant was closed. No matter, there was some lovely local food on the street. But breakfast was another matter. The hotel would organise a hamper, they said. Sounded lovely!

Next morning with an early train to catch, our departure time was tracked to the minute by the hotel. We were doing our last bug-out check (where we check each space for anything we may have left behind) when the hotel reception rang. How did we like our morning coffee?

When we got to reception, detouring past newly-installed scaffolding and bypassing closed areas, we found workmen well in residence, unplugging leads, removing ceiling battens and trying to remove the reception desk itself. We saw one over-zealous workman get slapped away by the receptionist who was still trying to print out our bill. The reception staff were lovely, the workmen only had a job to do and we, the last guests, were definitely in their way. There was a sense of relief as they helped us out to the taxi. It was at that point that I was handed the ‘hamper’ through the taxi window. A large paper bag each with unknown contents, plus a very hot cup of coffee (tea in my husband’s case). The paper carriers had paper handles which I carefully threaded over my arm. They waved goodbye to us then went back in to lock the doors and hang up the ‘No Vacancy’ sign.

At the station, we had to juggle five bags, the two paper carry bags and the very hot morning cuppas in paper cups. The taxi driver got us to the pavement. We were on our own from there.

We found our way to a bench seat inside the station where I sagged gratefully, putting down the paper cups and rubbing my almost-blistered hands. Jeff built our cube of luggage then headed off to organise our tickets. I rested my legs across the cube before examining the paper bags which were now soggy and threatening to rip. With all the renovation issues and no restaurant, I had low expectations.

A peek inside the paper bag ‘hamper’. We’d already finished the coffee. Note the stripy boiled egg. They sell them like that in the shops in Switzerland.

Inside each bag, to my delight, was a ham roll, a cheese roll, an apple pie, a very pretty striped boiled egg, a cup of yogurt with fruit, a cup of fruit salad, a small cup of milk for the tea and coffee, a bottle of water, a smaller bottle of fruit juice, an apple and a small Toblerone chocolate. All well chilled. Plastic cutlery, of course, and the condensation from the milk, fruit salad and the chilled yogurt was what had damaged the carrier bags, and also turned the napkins to papier maché. I had my cloth Boomerang Bag, of course, and I transferred the rolls, the eggs, the chocolate, the bottles and the apples to it. When Jeff came back we drank the coffee (now at a reasonable temperature) and ate the yogurt. Getting to the train was easier — being now better organised, we could wheel our bags while I had my Boomerang Bag with our food slung over my shoulder. It took us almost until we arrived in Lausanne that afternoon to finish our breakfast.

Setting up our leisurely picnic breakfast as the train pulled out of Zurich.

At other times when driving through countryside, we’ve often stopped to buy a meal at a small local shop. In New Caledonia we bought a jar of paté in a supermarket which I ate for breakfast with a fresh, warm bread roll bought at a local boulangerie. Jeff preferred the fresh croissants with a pot of jam. We’d buy them and drive to a lookout somewhere, or a beach by the lagoon. At one isolated place we found the resident mosquitoes clearly wanting their breakfast too. We slammed up the windows and slapped the mosquitoes into oblivion while we drove somewhere more hospitable.

To Dijon for mustard — perfect for ham on the breakfast baguette. Interestingly, the shop is on Rue du Chapeau Rouge. Street of the Red Hat. I did not put the hat on just for the photo, honest!

Making do like this for impromptu meals has given us local experiences with food not available anywhere else. We’d stop and buy a local cheese, perhaps a local bottle of wine. It can be hit and miss, but the experience is always worthwhile.

Hot food in preparation on a cold day — pumpkin and chicken soup on the left; home-made chilli oil (made with some Carolina reaper chillis from a friend); the makings of gnocchi for a late lunch.
Fresh gnocchi — little Italian pillows of delight when made fresh with eggs, mashed potato and flour. Served with just butter or here, with a tomato-based sauce. Comfort in coronavirus time.

In my kitchen right now, stuck at home with whatever we can put together, I’ve made a chicken stock by boiling down a reserved chicken carcass from a previous roast dinner, and fresh herbs from the garden. We have a couple of pumpkins, one had a bad bruise on the skin which, if left, would send the whole pumpkin bad. I cut out the bruised part and I’m simmering chopped pumpkin in the chicken stock. I’ve also got leftover mashed potato and some eggs — inexplicably, in wet weather and short winter days, our chickens are still giving us eggs. So I’ll make home-made gnocchi too, for a family member who has had to go to the doctor to get tested for Covid-19. Tonight I’ll use up more eggs and some leftover roast meat and vegetables to make a frittata.

As we eat what we put together from what we have, I’ll be remembering breakfast by the roadside in France with fresh croissants, some sliced ham and Camembert, with mustard from Dijon. Or perhaps that amazing breakfast on the train from Zurich, as we watched the countryside flash past.

Soup selfie. Making do in the moment.

One day soon…