In search of the elusive lentils

Her soup depended on them. I searched the supermarket but failed to find a single lentil. The aisles were labeled, but what category do lentils fall under?

He was very young - well, maybe about 17 or 18 - and he was stacking shelves in our local supermarket. This smallish supermarket was taken over recently by another chain. After being closed for a few days, everything was in a different place when it reopened. The new owners wanted to make their mark. It's only natural. But now you can't find anything.

On this particular evening, what I couldn't find were lentils. I had been dispatched exigently for them by our resident soupmaker. She was already boiling the water.

"She" is Scottish, and she also happens to be my wife. I didn't exactly marry her for her soup, but it has certainly been one of the bonuses. I believe Scots (I am English, myself) have soup in their blood. They have an uncanny instinct for it. There isn't a commercial soup on the market that can hold a candle to homemade Scottish soup. It is not something you want to be without for very long.

I remember some years ago, we were about a week into a visit to Greece, and we had reached that point where moussaka had started to lose its initial enchantment. My wife quite suddenly let out a cry of anguish. "Oh," she said with a touch of that plaintive yearning one sometimes hears when listening to the bagpipes, "What I wouldn't do for a bowl of lentil soup!"

Clearly, home was calling.

On this day, I searched the place methodically but failed to find one single lentil. The aisles were labeled helpfully, it's true, but what general category do lentils fall under? Fruit and vegetables? Certainly not soap powders. Bacon - hardly. So I looked for an assistant, and I found this charming young fellow in a black apron who was stacking shelves.

"Lentils," he exclaimed, grinning merrily. "Ooh! I've been asked that one before."

After a while he said: "That's a tricky one."

After some more time he added: "Ooh. Lentils."

Eventually, with a cheerful grin he concluded, "I really haven't any idea." And that was that.

"Tell you what," I said, as I walked away, "if I find them I'll come back and tell you. Then next time you'll know." It seemed the most helpful thing I could offer.

Two aisles over, I discovered another young chap in a black apron stacking shelves. He had some degree of recall.

"Either Aisle 1 or 2," he said.

At last I found them. But then I had a new predicament. There was a choice - red or green. I reached for my cellphone, but there was no signal. So I reached for the nearest lady. Well, not literally. She was very much absorbed in custard powder.

"Sorry to interrupt your flow of thought," I said, "but do you happen to know the difference between green and red lentils?"

She was not Scottish, as I had expected. She was English, rather fruity of voice.

"Oh," she said, "I have a feeling one is quicker to cook than the other." Pause. "But I can't remember which. Oh dear. I am so sorry. I use the red ones if that's any help."

"It is. Definitely. Thanks. I'll take the red ones."

I returned to the first shelf stacker. He was immersed in conversation with a couple.

"Lentils are on Aisle 1," I informed him. "So now you know."

He grinned.

"Oh," said the woman, who was decidedly Scottish, "he knows everything."

"He didn't know where the lentils are," I said.

"Lentils," she said. "What are you cooking them with?" And without hesitation she told me that "a shank of mutton, that's by far the best, off the bone. Makes really great soup. Nothing like it. Shank of mutton."

She was so very enthusiastic that I didn't like to tell her we make soup only with vegetables these days. And I wasn't sure that even if I had told her how earth- shakingly mellow, how euphoric, how velvety on the tongue the lentil and vegetable soup made weekly at our place is, that she would have believed me. Besides, I never like to turn down advice freely given.

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