It's a cold, gray, winter day. You have been sightseeing at cold, gray ruins all day. It's getting dark. Now you are driving along a narrow lane between tall, leafless hedgerows. You are tired and hungry.
You enter a tiny village and spot the pub sign swinging in the breeze. You stop.
A half of bitter and the world looks a little brighter. Then the proprietress brings out a steaming bowl of soup and places it before you. It is as golden as the Caribbean sun. The aroma is hearty, heady and redolent of Cheddar, and the taste is satisfying, sublime.
Cheese soup -- what a good idea. You decide to spend the rest of your life right here.
"It's definitely a hardier soup," says chef Bob Morgan of the lager and cheddar soup he created after hearing a description from an English friend.
The soup Mr. Morgan serves at Weber's on Boston Street in Baltimore has a base of sturdy chicken and ham stock and is seasoned with bay, dry mustard and onions. It's a deceptively simple preparation that packs a wallop of good tastes.
Although the soup has been on the menu since Weber's opened last June, it's been especially popular this winter. "We're definitely serving more of it than we did in the summer," Mr. Morgan said.
Mr. Morgan, who is executive chef at Weber's, said he likes to cut up rye or German farm bread into 1-inch cubes and add those to the soup as he's eating it -- which would make it resemble two other winter cheese favorites, Welsh rarebit and fondue.
While the British may not do quite everything right when it comes to food, they do understand comfort, and they do have a lot of nice, distinctive cheeses. A soup created by chef Marcel Desaulniers at the Trellis restaurant in Williamsburg, Va., also is based on a description of an English dish: Trellis co-owner John Curtis' recollection of a chilled Stilton soup at Tante Claire in London.
"People do love 'em," Mr. Desaulniers says. "I've made cheese soup for years. Growing up in New England, we always had cheese soups as a sort of staple of life."
Mr. Desaulniers suspects the texture of the soups is part of their appeal -- the cheese contributes a nice, smooth consistency -- but he thinks people also go for a taste that is somewhat out of the ordinary among soups.
Soup made with cheese is "a pretty good idea," says James McNair, a California cookbook author. "It's creamy, it's rich, it's satisfying, it's delicious."
A number of cheeses lend themselves to soup-making, Mr. McNair says: "Anything that melts smoothly -- fontina, Emmentaler, cheddar, Jack."
While cheese soups are generally hearty in flavor, they're also somewhat fragile as preparations. "One thing about these cheese soups, they're not as nice when they're reheated," Mr. Desaulniers said.
Here is Mr. Morgan's recipe for cheddar and beer soup. If you don't want to make the chicken and ham stock, use bouillon and increase the amount of onions in the soup to 3/4 cup. (Just be sure the amount of liquid stays the same, 1 1/2 quarts.) If you're concerned about using butter, mix 1/4 cup cornstarch with enough warm water to give it the consistency of milk.
Old English lager and cheese soup
Makes 6-8 servings.
FOR THE CHICKEN AND HAM STOCK:
1 pound chicken bones
1 pound smoked ham shanks
1 1/2 quarts cold water
2/3 cup celery, medium dice
2/3 cup carrots, medium dice
1 cups onions, medium dice
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs thyme
1 clove garlic
FOR THE SOUP
1 1/4 pounds sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup onions, fine dice
4 ounces heavy cream
8 ounces lager beer
2 1/2 ounces butter (5 tablespoons)
2 1/2 ounces flour (5 tablespoons)
1/4 - 1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
FOR THE GARNISH
bacon, fried crisp and crumbled scallions, including green parts, sliced thin
Rinse the ham shanks and chicken bones in cold water. Put all ingredients in a stock pot with 1 1/2 quarts cold water. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Strain the stock; put it aside where it can be kept warm. (Note: If you make the stock ahead of time, warm it up before adding to the soup.)
In a 1 1/2 gallon pot, saute the onions in the butter. Add the flour, blending it well. Over high heat, add the warm stock and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to simmer and add lager, dry mustard and cheese. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little hot soup to the cornstarch and mix to a smooth paste. Gradually add cornstarch mixture to soup until desired consistency is reached. (It should be somewhat thick.) Add the heavy cream and simmer 5 minutes more before serving. Garnish with crumbled bacon and scallions.
In this next soup, the pear garnish was added to balance the assertiveness of the Stilton, chef Marcel Desaulniers says in his newly expanded version of "The Trellis Cookbook" (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1992, $15 in paperback.) The chef says the soup may also be served warm -- especially if you like the assertive flavor of the cheese which will be more powerful than when the soup is chilled.
Chilled Stilton and pear soup
Makes 8 servings.