Haricot Bean Soup

soup-015 This is from The English Cookery Book by Lucie G. Nicoll, published by Faber and Faber in 1936, though this is the 6th edition dating from 1947. The introduction explains that Ms Nicoll is a farmer’s wife and has written the book with the intention of providing a range of seasonal recipes, compiled in a ‘book that can be washed over after having been soiled with flour, and a book in which the recipe stands out in good bold type, so that time is not wasted in peering into small and difficult lettering’. It’s a compact, uncomplicated and indeed well laid-out book, and looks well kept, so the rough treatment Ms Nicoll prepared it for looks to have not come to it (yet).  The introduction also explains how farm wives have naturally developed a tradition of good cookery, and she emphasises that this is not haute cuisine, but good solid English food “They are not for the epicurean or frequenter of the Ritz or such-like places…but again if any of my tired epicurean friends with jaded palates should care to risk  say a slice of the cold spiced beef or the hotpot of pigeons I doubt they will regret it”.

Notably the book is divided into recipes for the four seasons. Ms Nicoll says in the introduction how it is odd this has not been done before (it seems to me to be the preserve of  most recipe books to consider themselves to be introducing new, improved  methods in their approach to cookery), seasonal cooking is something that has had something of a renaissance in recent years – when this book was penned it appears to be an approach so obvious it hasn’t been acknowledged (at least in the recipe books Ms Nicolls knows).

There is also a chapter entitled The Ramblers Harvest, (subchapter Hedgerow Cookery,) with recipes including numerous blackberry conserves, dandelion wine, medicinal elderflower concoctions, nettle beer and other tempting things that I will probably make at some point using the spoils of my forages on Walthamstow Marshes.

What I cooked was a very simple soup.  It’s from the section for the First Season, ie January-March. Here’s the recipe:

Haricot Bean Soup

1 pint of milk

1 pint of water

1/2 pint of haricot beans

1 onion

1/2 oz of dripping

salt and pepper and a pinch of bicarbonate of soda

Soak the beans in cold water overnight with a pinch of bicarbonate of soda. To make the soup, melt the dripping in a saucepan, add onion sliced and the drained beans, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Then add the water and simmer for three hours. Rub through a sieve and add the milk. Season to taste, serve very hot with fried croutons of bread. Sufficient for 4 people.




  • Firsly, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was something left out for the cat.
  • I didn’t soak the beans as I bought them in a tin, in some brine or…something. This was a relief as I’d spent five minutes before reading the recipe beyond the ingredients list searching for the bicarb, which was either in the black hole section of my store cupboard or not there at all. Whichever it turns out to be (I gave up looking) it wasn’t looking good for its inclusion in the recipe.
  • It occurs to me that I may have used too few beans. I measured them by putting them in a pint glass to the halfway mark, as I can’t see how else one would measure beans by the pint. Perhaps this was wrong?
  • I almost didn’t bother because I didn’t think I would be able to get dripping. Dripping is so Victorian; it felt like being tasked to locate a Psammead. However, Morrison’s had some. Britannia Finest Beef Dripping, 67p for a hundredweight (or a half-kilo, I forget which) –


  • Dripping is weird. More like wax than fat as I know it, it flaked off into the pan, but melted down beautifully.
  • The 3 hour simmer of the fat, water, beans and onion produced a delicious smelling liquid. At this point I was very happy with the recipe.
  • I don’t have a suitable sieve for rubbing things through, handy food processor to the rescue!
  • Then I added the pint of milk. This is where I stopped wanting to consume what I had made.
  • A whole pint of milk is a lot of milk! The soup is now a very pale, vaguely beany liquid. It’s mostly milk.
  • I suspect it would have made a difference to use full fat instead of semi-skimmed milk. When was skimming cream from milk popularised?


A very cheap, simple and labour unintensive recipe for a very pale milky soup. Would not make again. I am going to blame post-war austerity for this recipe. I’m not going to eat more of it in it’s current state – am thinking add as many beans again, and perhaps some bacon.


4 responses to “Haricot Bean Soup

  1. I suspect your method of measuring the beans is correct, but that it will reduce in too few beans anyway, because you measured them soaked rather than dried. They swell as they are re-hydrated, which means they take up more room, and probably don’t pack down as well so there will be bigger gaps between them.

    I wonder if it’s worth seeing what it tastes like without the milk?

  2. That’s so blindingly obvious about the beans now you’ve mentioned it. I am an idiot! I will definitely add more beans later to see what results.

    It smelled awesome before I put the milk in. I think it would have been ok with perhaps 1/4 pint of whole milk/ cream, but a pint of semi-skimmed was really too much.

  3. Semi-skimmed was likewise your downfall. This recipe would have been written for using the milkman-delivered pint bottle of basic silver-top (full-fat, non-homogenised) milk. One could shake it to distribute the fat globules throughout or (as most of us did) leave it be so to obtain that gill’s worth of rich, creamy ‘top of the milk’. A milkman service was recently reinstated after 30 years absence in my village – but they only have homogenised. I remember as a kid in the 1970s my Mum saying that those who ordered that were ‘daft’ – how could one not only turn down but also pay extra to not have a gill of what was basically almost single cream?

    Anyway, use normal milk next time you make this – it’ll be worth it (mind you, a bean soup I’d likely zhuzh up a bit with either a herb or spice combo)

  4. Definitely more seasoning – garlic, herbs, a touch of chilli – and no milk at all. My experience of liquidised white beans is that they have a creaminess.