Umbrians love their legumes and cereal grains. Since early autumn, soups made with ceci (chickpeas), lenticchie (lentils), and farro spelt) have been appearing on menus around Perugia. We have sampled several variations of these warm and hearty creations (such as the soups Pedar had two weeks ago at La Taverna) and I have been trying to recreate some of them at home. Yesterday (Sunday), I read in the Giornale dell’Umbria that this week Monteleone di Spoleto was celebrating its “farro d’oro” (spelt of gold), also known as “farro di San Nicola,” the patron saint of Monteleone (see more below). I was inspired to make a zuppa di farro for lunch. Fortunately, the Antica Spezieria e Drogheria Eredi Bavicchi (Bavicchi, for short) is open on Sundays and it is just up the Via dei Priori from our apartment…
Bavicchi is an old fashioned spice and grocery store that specializes in dried legumes, grains, flours, spices, oils, teas and coffees, jams, and chocolate. They highlight their local products, but they also carry a selection of items from around Italy and the world. It is a great place to get spices beyond the normal Italian palette (e.g., curry powder and cumin). I have also been stopping in regularly for tea and coffee beans. Antonio and his staff are knowledgeable about their products and always helpful.
I will admit, however, to being somewhat daunted by the array of beans, lentils, and peas that they have available, many labeled by the specific region in which they are grown:
So I started slow. About a month ago I made a couscous with cauliflower (from the Wednesday market) and ceci (chickpeas) from Bavicchi (I also used their cumin powder). I am usually too lazy to soak chickpeas overnight, but this time I was determined to do it right and we were rewarded with little pearls of ceci that were perfectly cooked with just the right bite – al dente, as the Italians would say.
For a quick meal that does not involve planning ahead 24 hours, Antonio makes his own soup mix – Zuppa Umbra “Bavicchi”:
The “Bavicchi” soup includes little white beans from Lake Trasimeno, Umbrian lentils, spelt, Umbrian orzo (which is a type of barley), and some peas.
To prepare this soup I saute chopped onions, carrots, and celery (cut fine so the kids don’t notice them), add the bean mix, cover with water and bring to a boil. Then I let it simmer until everything is tender. For seasoning I use salt, pepper, and whatever green herbs I have on hand (usually parsley or oregano). At the end I sometimes add some small pasta shape and/or swiss chard (bietole in Italian), which the alimentari carries pre-cooked. Before eating we drizzle some new extra virgin olive oil on it. Everyone likes this soup. I wonder how many kilos we can carry back to the U.S.
Yesterday, however, I had already planned on making lentils with sausage for lunch. Then I read the article about “farro d’oro” and decided we would have a selection of soups.
Lentils and spelt are both ancient foods, among the earliest domesticated plants in the world. Spelt is one of those cereals that, as an archaeologist, I have read and taught about, but I have never really considered eating. It falls into the category of a hulled grain, which means that it is more difficult to process than other forms of wheat. It is, however, easier to grow and is resistant to cold, so it can be sown in the fall. It was a popular crop in certain parts of Europe until the late 19th century when advances in agriculture made wheat a more productive crop, and it was no longer worth the trouble to remove the hull from the spelt.
According to the Giornale dell’Umbria, for 15 centuries “farro di San Nicola” (the spelt of San Nicola) has grown on the slopes of Monteleone del Spoleto (ca. 1000 meters above sea level). Every year, on 5 December, the Monteleonesi celebrated the festival of San Nicola by distributing the farro. In the presbytery of the church, the parish priest prepares a farro soup in a large cauldron set over the hearth. The soup is distributed to the community at noon, beginning with the children, who get to leave school early for the celebration. The ritual recalls the miracle of San Nicola who, passing through Monteleone was distressed at the poverty of the population and so he brought them farro to feed the poor (see here for details). Today the spelt of Monteleone di Spoleto is a protected crop. Only farro from that region is allowed to carry the D.O.P mark (Demoninazione di Origine Protetta).
Indeed, both lentils and spelt are famine foods. Like farro, Umbrian lentils are now also known as a delicacy around the world. The high mountain plains of Umbria are ideal for growing lentils and these little greenish-brown gems are incredibly tender, while still holding their shape.
Here is a bag of lentils that I bought at the alimentari when the season began in early fall. These lentils are from Colfiorito, which is located in an upland plain (note that the tag says 1000 meters above sea level) in the Sibellini mountains east of Perugia.
You can also get lentils from Castelluccio, another upland plain a little farther south than Colfiorito. We have sampled both, but I have not developed a refined taste for Umbrian lentils, so I cannot say which variety we like better. When restaurants serve lentils they often specify which region they come from. Lentils from Castelluccio carry the I.G.P designation (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), which means they were at least partially processed in Castelluccio (this is a little less stringent than the D.O.P designation for the farro; see here).
For yesterday’s lunch, I had already purchased sausage (from the butcher on Via dei Priori) to go with the lentils. I don’t have a real recipe for this dish. When I first bought lentils at the alimentari one of the grocers explained to me how to make them (he enjoys telling us the best ways to prepare local foods – at some point we will do a post about our friends at Il Parma). Basically his directions were to put the lentils in a pot with some onion, celery, and carrots (I assumed he meant chopped), cover them with water, and let them cook.
Meanwhile, you cook some sausage in a pan to which you add some tomatoes (peeled and seeded). When the lentils are tender, you add in the cooked sausage and tomatoes.
While the lentils were cooking, I also prepared the farro. For this soup, I modified a recipe for “Minestra di farro e zafferano” (spelt soup with saffron) from Suzanne Carreiro’s The Dog who Ate the Truffle (2010). Her recipe called for potatoes and Roma tomatoes, neither of which I had on hand (see above), so I left them out. Saffron is also cultivated in Umbria, so this is a very ‘local’ dish. Bavicchi carries saffron, although I am not sure that what I got yesterday was from Umbria. For this soup, you begin by steeping the saffron threads (only about 1/2 teaspoon) in hot water (the longer you steep it, the more flavorful it becomes; the recipe recommended two hours, I did not have that much time). You prepare the farro by cooking it in salted boiling water until it is tender (al dente):
While the farro is cooking, you saute onions, carrots, and celery (chopped fine) in olive oil; season the vegetables to taste with salt and pepper. To this you add about 6 cups of water and let the sop cook until the flavors have developed (about an hour). When the soup is ready you add the farro and the saffron that has been steeping. Cook for 5 more minutes until the flavors are melded. If you cook the farro too long, it will start to get mushy.
No one missed the potatoes and tomatoes in this dish. The farro was velvety on the outside and crunchy/nutty on the inside. The saffron made the dish glow and added a subtle smooth richness that enhanced the nuttiness of the farro.
We enjoyed both soups drizzled with new olive oil and a plate of bruschetta.