Under the radar? That’s definitely Abruzzo. It’s the poor touristic relation of Toscana, Umbria, Piemonte and yet this predominantly rural Italian region has so much to offer. Three National Parks, one Regional Park and several natural reserves are home to an unprecedented 75 per cent of Europe’s flora and fauna species. The slow food on offer, washed down with the local soft Montepulciano reds, is reason enough to visit the scores of ancient hilltop villages.
Take lentils. The medieval town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio holds a festival every September in their honour, the Sagra delle Lenticchie, and is campaigning to win them DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) status alongside such iconic foodstuffs as Parmesan, Balsamic vinegar of Modena, San Marzano tomatoes and the like.
I source my Abruzzo lentils (via the wonderful Ham and Cheese Company in Bermondsey) from the Casino di Caprafico 100km south east which accesses the same scrubby terrain that somehow brings out the iron-rich best in these tiny legumes. Easily the equal of France’s acclaimed Puy lentils. The same deeply traditional operation also yields my go-to new season olive oil. The head honcho is Giacomo Santoleri. Let Ham and Cheese Co tell his story:
“Giacomo Santoleri was an engineer before turning to agriculture 20 years ago. His Caprafico farm is on the eastern slopes of the Maiella National Park, close to the town of Guardiagrele and there he has chosen to grow a range of heritage grains to mill for bread and pasta. Pasta from his barley and emmer (farro) is a long way from the uniform white mono flavour of pasta made from high yielding wheat varieties and it is also much healthier; emmer is known to be good for the heart and immune system. It is high in antioxidants, fibre and protein. Like many heritage grains the plants are strong and sturdy and can be grown without the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”
And the Caprafico lentils?
“Giacomo grows ancient grains and pulses on the Caprafico plain in Abruzzo. These lentils are sown at the end of March on poor, chalky soil and they thrive in the harsh mountain temperatures of the Maiella National Park. Surviving these adverse conditions gives the lentils lots of flavour
“The lentils ripen at different times depending on their altitude but the majority are harvested during August. Harvesting takes place by hand because the lentils grow so close to the ground that mechanised harvesting can destroy up to 40 per cent of the harvest. Inside the cloth bag are 500gs of the most beautiful, speckled lentils. Cook them with a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery then stir them – still firm – into some softened dice of the same vegetables. Top them with a sausage or poached egg.”
The form the perfect base for toothsome New Year’s Day treat, Cotechino, sausagey subject of one of my Italian Food Trail pieces, but with my latest lentil batch I have wilfully ditched seasonality.
Just as summer is almost convincing Yorkshire it is Abruzzo I’ve assembled in my garden the ingredients for a decidedly autumnal Lentil and Chestnut Soup, loosely adapted from a Rachel Roddy recipe. It was an excuse to use up two vacuum packs of hulled chestnuts that had lain too long in the store cupboard. Plus I had an excess of chicken broth in the freezer and a surfeit of herbs from the garden.
Lentil and Chestnut Soup
4 tbsp good olive oil
1 stick celery,
100ml Noilly Prat
3 tomatoes, skinned and diced
Ready cooked chestnuts, broken up
2 litres of chicken broth/water
Parsley, chervil, dill, marjoram or other mixed fresh herbs.
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a large pan heat olive oil over a low flame, add chestnuts, stir for a minute then add vermouth and let it bubble for a couple of minutes.
Rinse the lentils and add to a separate pan with chopped veg, herbs and stock water mixture. Simmer for an hour or so over a low heat until the lentils are tender Unlike red lentils they keep their shape). Remove bayleaf. Take out half the mix and blend roughly before returning to the lentil pan along with the chestnuts and a splash of good extra virgin olive oil. Caprafico would be perfect.