It was like an apparition. A road wound up a steep hill to its pinnacle. The cumulus clouds had parted so that only the summit was sunlit. It was there that we saw the medieval town of Castellucio. The ghostly structures were impressive, yet forbidding. When we reached the town there were no people, only a cutting wind that swirled scraps of litter around in a circle. A wild dog sniffed the street.
“The town is famous for its lentils,” our friend Sante had said as he drew us a map. Getting there from Sante’s place was not easy. Mountain passes lined with snow poles ushered us to a high plain on the border of the Marche and Umbria regions of Italy. In the middle of the plain was the hill of Castellucio. On the opposite side of the town, towards Norcia, were the lentil fields. At that moment just the tilled black earth of autumn, they are said to be of brilliant color when the lentils bloom in spring. That day the fields were as desolate as the town. A car with Swiss license plates was parked under a roadside shelter. There were no other signs of life.
Several miles on we stopped the car to look back. Someone had planted shrubs on an otherwise barren hill in the shape of a giant map of Italy. Next to it was Castellucio, the sun still bathing it in glowing color. It was impossible to forget this dramatic setting, so when we were in an Umbrian pizzeria a year later we were excited to see lentil soup on the menu.
Zuppa di Lenticchie di Castelluccio. It was soup made with Castellucio’s lentils. Susie ordered it, promising me a taste.
Ten minutes later it arrived, steamy and inviting. The lentils were tiny and perfectly shaped. The soup was as thick as porridge. Beneath its surface was a hidden treasure—a thin slice of toasted bread rubbed with garlic. In five minutes it was gone, the bowl wiped clean.
“Tell him it was the best lentil soup I’d ever eaten,” said Susie, her Italian temporarily absent. I told the owner, who was pleased by the compliment.
“Tell your wife that it is due to the lentils from Castellucio!” he said.
Later that week, we craved the soup again so we went back to the pizzeria. This time the proprietor brought us a bottle from a hidden shelf. “I made this olive oil myself. Drizzle a little on top.” The fruity oil released its intoxicating perfume as it hit the piping hot soup. The result was magical. We had to get some of these lentils.
We found them in another hill town, at a food shop that specialized in organic food. Amidst a shelf of chestnut honey and cannellini beans sat a row of small burlap bags with Castellucio stamped on them. Each small bag cost almost $10.00, which seemed a lot for lentils. But, if those lentils could make that soup they were worth twice the price.
When we got home we opened the bag. They were the tiniest lentils we’d ever seen. They formed a mosaic in my hand of olive, burnt umber, and burnt sienna colors. The lentils were almost too beautiful to cook. I ran them through my fingers, enjoying their silky texture. Later we learned that authentic Lenticchie di Castellucio are actually a blend of three types and colors of lentils, proving the authenticity of the bag we had bought.
We soon tried every lentil soup recipe we knew. None tasted like that of our pizzeria. We decided to simplify the recipe and let the taste of the lentils carry the dish. The pizzeria owner was right, the secret was the lentils. Keeping it simple was the key.
Umbrian Lentil Soup
Zuppa di Lenticchie di Castellucio
1 1/3 cup lentils of Castelluccio
6 tbl. extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
1 garlic clove, chopped fine
2 tbl. Italian parsley, chopped fine
6 cups meat broth
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 slices of Italian bread, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 garlic clove, peeled
extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Wash the lentils thoroughly in a strainer or colander. Remove any stones you may find. Set them aside to drain.
Put 6 tbl. of olive oil and the onions into a soup pot. Sauté the onions over medium heat until they are a deep golden color. Add the celery and continue sautéing for an additional 3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Do not let it brown. Add the parsley and cook for 2 minutes more.
Add the lentils and stir to coat them thoroughly with the contents of the pot. Add the broth and several large pinches of salt and several grindings of freshly ground black pepper.
Lower the heat and cook the soup at a gentle simmer for at least an 1 hour or until the lentils are soft and have absorbed most of the broth. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Add more broth or water if the soup gets too thick.
Lightly toast the bread and rub it gently on both sides with the clove of garlic. Place a slice in the bottom of each bowl and pour the soup over the top. Drizzle a little olive oil on top of each bowl. Serve immediately.