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Castelluccio: Chromatic Majesty and Lentils

Anne Robichaud

Sitting near the tractor in what was once a sheep stall, elderly farm woman Derna was shaking lentils in a sieve. The harvest of the famous lenticchie di Castelluccio (the tiny, quick-cooking lentils of the Castelluccio di Norcia area) usually takes place in July but "maybe as late as August this year," Derna told us. Constant rains throughout May have frustrated farmers all over Italy, setting back harvest times of most crops, lentils included. Derna was separating the lentils from the chaff - but these were the lentils of last year's harvest.

Sorting Lentils

On our late June visit last year to Castelluccio and the vast Piano Grande ("high plain" - 1452 meters) fanning out below, a kaleidoscopic tapestry of wildflowers intermingled with the chromatic variations of the crops cultivated by the few farmers still living in Castelluccio, medieval castle-village perched over the plain. We saw patches of red lupinella and yellow rapeseed here and there but the chromatic splendor will probably peak at the very end of June or early July this year. On our next trip, we'll be on the motorcycle - the best way to enjoy the panorama of the stunning Val Nerina leading to Castelluccio.

Castelluccio overlooking the Piano Grande

Castelluccio overlooks the Piano Grande

And in the meantime, this unseasonably cool weather means time for the lentil soup, made with the tiny lentils of Castelluccio.

Umbrian Lentil Soup

For about 6 persons

  • 1 lb lentils
  • 1 carrot, finely-chopped
  • 1 medium-sized stalk of celery, finely-chopped
  • 1 small white or yellow onion, finely-chopped
  • 1 handful parsley, finely-chopped
  • Extra-virgin olive oil - to taste, as needed
  • Salt
  • Optional additions: hot red pepper, sprig of fresh rosemary

Soak the lentils overnight in cold water. (Try to buy small, tender lentils which do not require hours to cook. Here in Umbria, the lentils of Castelluccio are the best, cooking very quickly and with superb flavor. Sought after all over Italy, if you ever come to Umbria, be sure to pick some up!)

Rural version: my farm neighbors would start with a soffrito (or "gentle fry"), that is, by putting in saucepan olive oil, enough to cover the bottom. Procedure: heat olive oil but do not burn and put all vegetables in oil, stirring with wooden spoon (only! never use stainless steel with legumes, I am told). Stir until vegetables are golden - add lentils and about 1 quart water. Simmer until lentils tender. Drizzle with olive oil when serving, if desired.

My version: to avoid any sort of frying (even if minimal) of olive oil, I put all ingredients in pot together (except olive oil) and simmer. Simmer until lentils are tender and drizzle olive oil on the soup before serving. (My version is probably better for the health - but the rural version is best for the palate!).

For both of above versions, small hot red pepper may be added during cooking - but watch out! A sprig of fresh rosemary adds wonderful flavor to the soup.

Miscellaneous Lore

  • The above soup is delicious if poured over hot bruschetta (bread toasted and rubbed with a garlic clove, then drizzled with olive oil).
  • Here in Umbria, lentils are eaten New Year's Eve (along with many other dishes) as the more lentils you eat on New Year's Eve the more coins (i.e., greater wealth) you will have in the New Year! On New Year's, the lentil soup is cooked with zampone (pig's feet), though the farmers often used their homemade sausages if zampone not available.
  • Olive oil must be extra virgin and ideal if also cold-pressed. The best olive oil in the world (if you believe Europe's top chef, Alain Ducasse) is that of the Spello area, here in Umbria! (and happy to tell you how to get hold of it).

Contributed by Anne Robichaud (see bio) - Anne offers unique guided tours of the Umbrian hilltowns (centered on art, history and contact with "the locals") and cooking classes in the family Assisi area farmhouse (see www.annesitaly.com/Cooking.html). She and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970's and rural life, rural people are una passione for Anne. Anne teaches Umbrian rural cuisine in private homes in the U.S. each year in February and March. She writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. See www.annesitaly.com for more on her US Events, tours, cooking classes – and her blog! Coming soon: website on the Assisi apartment she and Pino now rent!

© Anne Robichaud, 2013. Do not republish without permission.

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