Nonna Aida 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. I am a friend of Nonna Aida’s daughter and sometimes they invite me for a traditional Italian lunch. This time I came to the tiny village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio to learn how to make the famous local lentil soup.
This tiny dark brown legume with a hint of purple 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.
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.
… 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.
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.