When the first chill creeps into the air, the knee-jerk reaction for many Canucks is to get soups simmering on the stove. While we love our minestrone and hearty stews, it’s hard to beat dipping your spoon into a steaming bowl of split pea soup.
This classic stick-to-your-bones soup has been a Quebecois favourite for over 400 years. For good reasons, too: pure comfort made from easy-to-preserve ingredients.
“Split pea soup is made of yellow split peas, ham hock, vegetables, and thyme, and it’s usually served with bread,” says Ottawa Chef Marc Miron, who is an expert on the dish. “Split pea soup is a dish that can be served as a starter or as a main.”
But where exactly did this hearty soup come from in the first place? Miron has an inkling, based on his own extensive research tracing the roots of “habitant soup.” Although he’s headed up kitchens around the world and cooked for celebs like Chef Gordon Ramsay and the Rolling Stones, this busy chef was drawn to explore the history of this delicious Canadian dish.
“It’s a beautiful staple in the Canadian cuisine, not only in Quebec,” says Miron.
The soup’s origins are murky, but Miron believes today’s recipe is likely a distant relative of soup made aboard explorer Samuel de Champlain’s ships from France. On long journeys, the ships would be stocked with ingredients that preserve for lengthy times, such as vinegar, honey, cheese, rice, legumes, and salted meats and fish.
“All of those ingredients were on board that they made soup with,” says Miron. “It was probably not the split pea soup as we know now. But it was a [salted] ham-broth with some peas in it and some vegetables.”
As more habitants – or Canada’s first settlers – arrived from France and landed on Canadian soil, the soup served on ships gradually evolved and came to include game meats, pork, and locally grown ingredients.
“The habitants depended on the forests for their meat, but they farmed pigs along with vegetables, fruit, peas, and beans,” says Miron. “Soup was always part of the meal. Looking at the setup of the table, the spoon would always be there for the soup. They had to get creative with it: basically finding out that the peas matched very well with the ham hock.”
Whether called habitant soup or soupe aux pois cassés or split pea soup, this early settler soup with many names became a staple item on the menu for Quebec’s settlers. For starters, it was a filling and nutritious meal that helped them survive harsh Canadian winters.
“Going through the winter, times were pretty hard,” says Miron. “Pea soup is something that gave them everything from vegetables to legumes to protein. It’s a meal by itself.”
Most habitant farmers also had bread ovens, partly explaining why today’s version of the soup is usually paired with a slice of warm, crusty bread.
“Bread is always part the tradition,” says Miron. “When times were rough for the habitants, you needed a full meal and bread provided for that.”
Of course, the original habitant-style soupe aux pois cassés has changed over the centuries, swapping out salted meats for ham hock, but the soup has become a Canadian classic that has spanned generations.
“My grandmother is 96 and she told me that pea soup was served every Friday,” says Maxime Constantin, the owner of Cabane à sucre Constantin in Quebec where they serve a mean bowl of split pea soup. “So it’s become a traditional meal served in every family.”
In terms of regional variations, Miron says that most recipes still “respect the basics,” adding split peas and vegetables to the soup. The wildcard that he’s witnessed in the culinary world involves the broth.
“The consistency in the soup is where you see the most difference,” says Miron. “Some have it more ‘brothy,’ and some have it thicker.”
As the dish became popular across the country, dry and canned versions of the old school recipe popped up, with the first emerging in the late 1800s, according to Miron.
“They did an instant pea soup around 1867,” says Miron. “When you invent a soup dry, it’s because it’s popular.”
Get the recipe for Split Pea Soup.
If you’re not in a hurry, skip the ready-made varieties, and try your hand at creating a homemade batch of delicious split pea soup. There’s the traditional recipe for Québécois-Style Pea Soup made with unsmoked ham hock, but also Slow Cooker Split Pea Soup using a smoked turkey leg, leeks, and green split peas. Or follow Ina Garten’s recipe for Parker’s Split Pea Soup, which uses chicken stock instead of ham hock.
Short on time? Whip up a batch of Chef Michael Smith’s recipe Speedy Split Pea Soup using dried split peas, bacon, and frozen peas. Or if you’re not in a rush, try his more traditional recipe for Pig and Pea Soup with a ham hock broth.
For a soup with a zing, there’s this recipe for Split Pea and Ginger Soup from The Burnt Tongue in Hamilton, Ont. A warming soup with a kick of ginger spice, this dish is hearty to the core without being too heavy.
The food experts have a few tips for making split pea soup at home. At Cabane à sucre Constantin, Maxime Constantin regularly cooks up a colossal cauldron of pea soup that serves 700 people at their family-owned sugar shack. His secret to soup success? Soak the peas overnight.
“At the start, you have to soak the peas a night before,” says Constantin. “After we roast the piece of pork with carrot and onion, we add broth and peas. It has to boil about 2 to 3 hours until the peas are soft.”
For Miron, making split pea soup is a two-step process, which starts with the broth and then the soup. While the other ingredients are important, “the ham stock has to be very good.”
“It’s like roasting a chicken – the leg doesn’t cook the same way,” says Miron. “So I always de-bone and cook it separately. The pea soup is the same. To do a good ham stock, you would need 2-3 hours, depending on the size of your ham hock, to make sure the meat is cooked and falls off the bone.”
Once the broth is complete, Miron adds vegetables and chunks of ham to the rich, flavourful stock, and simmers the concoction on the stove for 30 to 45 minutes.
No matter which split pea soup recipe you choose or how you cook the broth, take pride in the fact that you’re slurping up a Canadian classic that been trending since the days of Samuel de Champlain. Now that’s definitely worthy of a Canadian Heritage Minute!