Learning How To Make Lentil Soup In Santo Stefano, Abruzzo

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I travelled to the tiny village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo, to learn how to make the famous traditional lentil soup. Nonna Aida, my teacher for the day, was sitting in her little comfy armchair by the kitchen window when I arrived. She had a pair of glasses on and was slowly sorting through a tray of lentils. “Nonna” in Italian means “grandmother”, and is affectionately used to call old ladies.santo stefano abruzzo

This tiny dark brown legume has been cultivated here for over 1000 years. The lentils thrive in this part of the Apennines at altitudes between 1200 and 1400 meters above the level of the sea on harsh terrain with cold winters. Historians found mentions of this legume in monastic documents dating back as far as 998 A.D and since then little has changed in the way it is cultivated: all work is done manually – not only because many fields are not accessible for machinery- but also in order to keep the yields higher. Mechanisation of the process would mean a loss of up to 40% of the crop. Only twelve farmers around Santo Stefano grow this ancient crop and supply mostly local families. However, their lentils are well known among European gourmands and some famous international chefs use them to create delectable dishes for the most sophisticated palates. On a few occasions, fake Santo Stefano lentils have been found on the market, which poses a serious threat to already precarious production. A few years ago, the precious lentils became a Slow Food Presidia, so their harvest and labelling are strictly regulated now.lentils1

There are just over 100 residents in Santo Stefano but local families are very fond of their lentils and normally buy them directly from producers. The harvest starts in August and in early autumn small tractors crawl along narrow streets of the village delivering large white sacks with lentils from door to door. Next step is to clean the lentils and many villagers have a special machine sitting in their basement: a large cylinder with holes that is rotated manually to discard the chaff. After cleaning, the lentils are stored in small cotton bags in the pantry. Just before cooking, the lady of the house sorts through the seeds to make sure there are no small stones or bits that should not be there. After that the lentils are ready to be turned into delicious soups and stews.

lentils santo stefano

… Nonna Aida unhurriedly chopped carrots and celery while I bombarded her with questions. She is 88 years old and lived in Santo Stefano all her life. Where did she learn to cook? “I got married when I was 20 years old, so I learnt by cooking for my husband”. I asked how much lentils per person she uses, trying to write down the old local soup recipe. “I make sure there is plenty for everyone”, was her response. How can you quantify common sense and years of experience, which are always the base of good cooking? “Just make sure you cook them slowly. No need to rush”, explained Nonna Aida.

lentil soup

In many old Italian cookery books recipes have no quantities. Ingredients change according to the season and situation. “I think, we don’t need toasted bread with the lentils today”, said Nonna Aida. “We will keep the soup light because I also cooked a few other things”. So, the lentil soup was served without croutons, then came cabbage with potatoes, then spinach and baked onions. And a few other tasty dishes. Everything is washed down with good wine from a family friend’s vineyard. Everyone at the table agreed that this year’s lentils were excellent and the soup was delicious. “Did you like our lentils?” asked me Nonna Aida. “They are the best I have ever eaten”, my answer was. She smiled and put another helping on my plate.

lentils soup

Inspired by nonna Aida, I bought a load of tiny lentils from a producer in Santo Stefano and have been making tasty soups every week. Here is the recipe.

Ingredients:

300g lentils of Santo Stefano (or any other Italian type)

1 medium potato, chopped

1 medium celery stalk, chopped

1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

lentil soup abruzzoPreparation:

In a pot sauté celery, carrot, and onion with olive oil for about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and sauté the mix for another minute. Add the lentils, bay leaf and potato. Pour in about 1 litre of water (if you like your soup more watery, add more). Cover and cook on low heat for 35-40 minutes. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped parsley and some peperoncino. Buon appetito!

If you are interesting in cooking with locals in Abruzzo please email me at anna(at)greenholidayitaly.com

 

 

15 Comments

  1. I’m taking a small group to Abruzzo in July and Nonna Aida and her lentils are already on the agenda!! She cooked for us in October and we can’t wait to get back — she’s a national treasure!

  2. I have tried lentils from Castelluccio in Umbria and they were delicious. Will keep an eye out for the lentils of Santo Stefano, curious to taste them.

  3. Your soup looks delicious! In Santo Stefano two years ago we ate at a restaurant, Il Ristoro degli Elfi. The Lentil soup alone was worth the trip. We complimented our hosts Anna and Silvan on its flavour and delicacy. After finishing our meal and settling the account, our hosts presented my fellow diners and I with a bag of lentils each. We had eaten Slow Food designated lentils, and as well as being restaurateur, Silvan Fulgenzi was the grower of the lentils. So we were eating at the source. I can highly recommend the local lentils.

  4. karenincalabria on

    Another good read focused on Nonna Aida – beautiful staircase and I love Nonna’s intent sorting – a still upper body with quickly moving, slightly blurred hands separating out the debris. When I moved to Calabria, my employer took me to the grocery store and bought a cart full of groceries to start me out. He included what he considered to be essentials, which included a box of lentils. I don’t remember their provenance, but I was surprised as I hadn’t realized they ate so many legumes in Italy. They’re now part of my regular diet!

  5. I enjoyed your website tremendously. I love lentils. I was raised on lentils. My ethnic background is Slovak/Hungarian. I guess eastern Europeans are familiar with lentils also. I had a friend who was Italian, and sadly has passed on, but I learned a lot from her. Her niece had cancer and was going through chemo, and my friend would make her tons of pasta and lentils. Her doctor wanted to know what she was doing as her Iron levels were the highest he had ever seen. Thank God…She is in remission. Lentils are Good!!!

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