On a fall visit to the mountainous Umbrian town of Norcia, I ordered the area’s famous lentil soup. I wasn’t expecting much. The soup was a thick, monochromatic beige.
But the first spoonful surprised me with honest, deeply satisfying flavor. Over the coming days, I ate soup at almost every meal. Chickpea, farro, and then back to lentil. It was fall, the weather was raw and I craved these meltingly delicious, sustaining soups.
In Italy a soup is either a thick zuppa or a minestra, a mix of more clearly discernible ingredients. These soups were in the zuppa category, most decidedly.
Norcia, mid-way between Ascolo-Piceno and Spoleto, made headlines in 2016 when a powerful earthquake devastated the historic town and surrounding areas such as Castelluccio, reputed to grow the best lentils in Italy.
Researching our trip last year, we learned that the town remained a maze of unstable, scaffold-cloaked stone buildings, with reconstruction dragging along.
This was disappointing, because I had always longed to visit Norcia. I knew that the town lent its name to the word norcino, the butcher who traditionally circulated among farms each fall to kill family pigs. It is famous for prosciutto and other cured meats, for black truffles, and for the farro, lentils and other legumes grown in and around Castelluccio.
The dear friends travelling with us agreed that Norcia merited a place on our itinerary and, intrigued by a reasonably priced Relais et Chateaux hotel called Palazzo Seneca, we decided to stay four nights.
During that time, we did lovely luxury-hotel things. We got massages in the spa, went on a truffle hunt, took a cooking lesson from the chef of the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
We visited Castelluccio, surrounded by snow-capped peaks looking down on greeny-gold pastures where grain and legume flowers blossom each spring.
We wandered the eerily deserted streets, listening to shop owners tell of happier years when tourists crowded the streets of Norcia to sample local cured meats and cheeses, to buy saffron, to dine on dishes lavished with black truffles.
St. Benedict was born in Norcia and we attended a twilight prayer service conducted by monks of that ancient order.
Incredibly, we were virtually the only tourists in Norcia that week.
A year later, the memory of wandering through Italy seems like a fantasy. But those comforting soups, they are still real.
Besides lentils and chickpeas from Castelluccio, I also came home with an heirloom pea variety called roveja.
The peas’ autumnal hues range from golden to brown to dusky green. Their flavor, once cooked, takes “earthy” to a new level. They were a little much, on their own, so I added carrot, celery, tomatoes and broken tagliatelle nests to yield a more interesting soup. (Unless roveja comes your way, lentils will work fine in this recipe.)
I stuck to the essentials in making chickpea-farro soup, honoring the spirit I found in Norcia. This simplest and most savory of soups is about survival, for them and for us.
This zuppa from a mountainous Umbrian region puts legumes and whole grains on center stage.
- 2 cups dried chickpeas picked over and washed
- 1 small onion finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 1 garlic clove finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup farro
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper optional
- 8 ounces mild Italian sausage cooked separately, cut in small pieces
Soak chickpeas in abundant water for at least 8 hours (or follow quick-soak method).
Saute onion in olive oil until pale gold. Stir in garlic, cooking briefly.
Add chickpeas, bay leaves and water (about 6 cups) to depth about 2 inches above chickpeas. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer slowly until chickpeas are barely tender, about 45 minutes.
Stir in farro and continue to cook until chickpeas and grain are meltingly tender, about 25 minutes longer. Add water as needed at any point. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cool soup to warm. Transfer one-third of mixture to a blender and blend until smooth. Roughly smash the remaining mixture with a potato masher or pastry blender, leaving some chickpeas whole. Return pureed chickpea mixture to saucepan. Stir in sausage.
Reheat soup and spoon into bowls. Drizzle a thread of olive oil on top of each serving.
Variation: Substitute lentils for chickpeas. The cooking time will be shorter.
The lentils in this recipe are left whole, but could be partially pureed for a creamier consistency.
- 2 cups French green lentils (or Roveja, wild Umbrian peas)* the kind that hold their shape when cooked
- ½ onion
- Several celery ends
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 medium carrots cut in small dice
- 1 large celery rib cut in small dice
- 2 cloves garlic chopped fine
- 14- ounce can plum tomatoes chopped fine with puree
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 to 3 ounces tagliatelle or other thin egg noodles
- 4 ounces dried sausage or salami cut in small cubes (optional)
- Extra virgin olive oil
Pick over and wash lentils. Cover with water to a depth of at least 2 inches above lentils. Add onion, celery ends and bay leaves.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until almost tender, about 20 minutes, adding water as necessary. Add carrots, celery, garlic and tomatoes. Continue cooking until fully tender, about 30 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Shortly before serving, stir in egg noodles and dried sausage. Simmer until noodles are tender. Drizzle a thread of olive oil over each serving.
• If you discover a source for this wild Umbrian pea variety, you are better off presoaking them in the same way as chickpeas, about 8 hours.