The best thing I ate in Italy was a bowl of lentil soup. This is not to disparage all the other wonderful, perhaps more refined things we enjoyed there, but this was, quintessentially, a perfect meal.
We went to Umbria this summer to attend the wedding of two very close friends. Many of the guests, like us, took the opportunity to spend a few days or, as we did, a full week in the somewhat remote and very beautiful region.
The festivities were to take place on a Saturday in a small paradise of an agriturismo (farm-hotel) outside Norcia. We’d barely arrived, quite a bit later than planned, on the Friday evening, when we were swept off for an improvised dinner in town with a hodgepodge of guests. We ordered chaotically, dined boisterously, and drove the waiters mad as our posse of children challenged local Italian kids for a football match in the piazza. It was cliché like a recent Woody Allen film, just with many many more children. It was great. I don’t remember what I ate that evening.
Two days after the wedding the feted couple organized a hike up Monte Vettore, the highest peak of the Sibillini range, the mountains against which Norcia is nestled. The road from Norcia winds up the lush forested mountainside to a crest, which, on the other side, reveals a large, treeless plateau encircled by higher peaks. It’s an unexpected sight. Off in the distance to the North, an earth-toned village perched amid the towering hills presides, alone.
I didn’t, at first, realize where I was. Not when everyone stopped their cars, awestruck by the symphony of colors, patchworked in neat rectangles all over the valley. Surely they didn’t grow flowers up here? Only when our host explained that the flowers grow wild among the lentils, did it hit me: Castelluccio, of course! I know the lentils of Castelluccio, world famous little pulses often mentioned in the the same breath as French Puy lentils. If I think carefully, I even remember that Simone comes from the region of Castelluccio and some years ago brought us a bag of precious lentils from a home trip. Here we are — amazing!
As I witnessed and have now learned, Castelluccio lentils are grown in this valley without the use of pesticides, using an old tradition of three-year crop rotation alternating lentils, cereals (spelt, barley), and pasture. In 1997 Castellucio received the geographical protection certificate from the European Union. Only lentils marked Lenticchia di Castelluccio di Norcia — IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) are guaranteed to come from this plateau. ‘Norcia’ or ‘Umbrian lentils’ most likely do not.
But we had a mountain to climb. A veritable caravan set off — adults, children, small children, babies — little groups trickling up the mountain path. Some were faster than others; not everyone made it to the top. For a while I tried to catch up with Leo, who had scampered off with a group of eager mountaineers, but as they receded ever farther up I thought better to wait for those lower down who were carrying Louise. It was a serious hike. A hike where, at some, you stop speaking to your companions for lack of breath. Where your mind starts to wander over the scenery, conjuring up the Mediterranean in the distance. The kind of hike that makes you hungry.
It feels as though I practically ran down that mountain, even with Louise on my back, as the light deepened, probably because by then I knew what awaited at the ‘merenda’ (afternoon snack) planned in Castelluccio.
We were not the first to arrive, to plonk down wearily on the wooden benches with sprawling views of the valley below, and immediately a large plate of lentil soup arrived. It was very simple, with a half-submerged slice of bread and generous drizzle of olive oil. It tasted, as far as my ravenous palate could tell, mainly and, most deliciously, of lentils. It was probably the best soup I had ever eaten. That first bowl, and a second one, and most of Louise’s as well. The salumi and cheeses that followed are completely forgotten in the shadow of that soup.
Seeing the crops, trudging up Monte Vettore for hours, overlooking the fields and village, before digging into a bowl of soup made of the fruit of this sumptuous valley. That was perfect.
I asked Simone for his mom’s lentil soup recipe, which she was most kind to share. Here it is, exactly as is. It should resemble very closely the one we had in Castelluccio. Mille grazie!
“I’m glad to export the recipe for lentils: here is how I do it, but the variations are many.
Ingredients: lentils, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, sausage if you wish. Water: 1 1/4 lt. for 500 gr. of lentils.
Castelluccio lentils do not need preliminary soaking; for other kinds read instructions.
Rinse the lentils thoroughly. Put in a pot with cold water: lentils, onion, celery, carrot and salt. The amount of water must be such as to be absorbed during the cooking and the absorption may be different between the types of lentils; if they are too dry, add more boiling water. Boil over low heat for as long as is recommended by instructions on the package; for those from Castelluccio: 20 to 30 minutes.
After cooking the lentils should not be drained so it is important to measure out the amount of water.
They can be enjoyed with just a dash of olive oil or: put already crumbled sausage in a pan, some clove of peeled garlic, warm up then add the lentils already boiled as described above. Cook for 10 minutes, serve in bowl with lentils over a slice of toasted bread and a drizzle of olive oil. On New Year’s day lentils are served with pig’s feet for good luck. Enjoy your meal!”