When a stick of celery has brewer’s droop, shun the salad and settle for soup. Behind this trite rhyme lurks a wealth of economic sense and ecological sensitivity. Throwing food away contravenes Nature’s first law of sustainability. It’s something we have to stop doing or we will end up in the soup, as sure as eggs are... just the start of something.
When in my early teens I got the cooking bug, I learned the importance of stock rotation. Food waste is a pet hate of mine, perhaps even a phobia. Second only to cooking with the best ingredients available, I aim to manage my vegetable stocks so that nothing grows old (or mould) before it gets used - but even now my best laid plans don’t always work out. Whereas a toddler might hide behind its mother’s skirts, in the vegetable drawer of my fridge the wrinklies seek to conceal themselves beneath fresh young fare. This is when Cream of Leftovers Soup can save the day!
The strategy is simple: pick on the elderly and infirm – carrots, celery, parsnips, peppers, onions, aubergines, whatever - and prejudicially act on blatant ageism. What’s great about this recipe is that the infinitely variable flavour of Cream of Leftovers Soup is always ‘a welcome change’, something to be proud of, to win praise for.
Pride is something else to beware of, so we remind ourselves that while we may know how to make soup from a diverse range of ingredients, Mother Nature achieved a much more difficult and seemingly magical feat: turning primordial soup into all the biodiversity we see around us today. It wasn’t a rush job, and even the most patient of us would consider a few billennia too long to wait for a meal; however, even as the smartest creatures on this planet we still can’t turn soup into something living and growing. And if we can’t do that, then surely no other creature can do so either.
Er... wrong, actually. At least one class of animals routinely manages this process, often in just a few days, using a 300 million-year-old ‘recipe’ passed down through countless generations yet written down nowhere but in the DNA of insects such as beetles, butterflies and bees.
For people, one of the bugbears of ageing is the increased chance of a fall resulting in broken bones. Bugs are unbothered by such matters: they have no bones but simply an exoskeleton, a brittle skin that holds everything else together. That’s a growing concern for young insects, whose exoskeletons burst open many times during their hectic adolescence. At each of these stages, or instars, the insect puffs itself up a shirt size within a rubbery new skin which, in a few days, will harden and allow the occupant to carry on hunting or foraging for food which, in time, will require yet another new skin.
This kind of gradual, partial metamorphosis generally occurs when insects are in their larval form. For some, at the final moulting stage out pops a winged insect that is otherwise very similar to the fully-developed larva. Mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies are examples of insects that go through a three-stage development process: egg, larva, adult.
But another, more dramatic metamorphosis has been perfected by those beetles, butterflies and bees. Their life cycle comprises not three but four stages. From the eggs tiny larvae emerge, and as they forage and feed so they face the challenge of escaping their rigid exoskeletons in a sequence of instars that terminate in an additional stage known as pupation. The fully-developed larva, a caterpillar-like adolescent with not the least sign of wings, develops an outer skin that usually encloses everything – even including its six legs, so a pupa is unable to move and hence cannot feed either. (Caterpillars may appear to have more than six legs, but entomologists tell us that those shuffling feet behind the three leading pairs are simply ‘prolegs’ and so don’t really count!)
Within the pupal shuck the bug virtually turns to soup before being reconstituted as something else. When the pupal case splits open, out pops a winged insect often so different in shape and colour that it’s hard to believe it is the same species as the dull grub that was the sole ingredient of that pupal soup. Long rubbery beetle larvae become rotund, hard-cased adult beetles; white wasp grubs turn into stripy-suited adults; and monochrome caterpillars are reborn in the rainbow colours of sun-loving butterflies. What is left over, the dry shuck or exuvia, is high in protein and eagerly seized upon by other small insects, in turn to be turned into yet more bug soup. Mother Nature, your smart soup really is glorious!
Sue Parker is a director of First Nature and author of Wild Orchids of the Algarve, how, when and where to find them.
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