Lentils: a great Mediterranean story
by Emilia Crippa
Lentils must truly be delicious, if Esau gave up his birthright for a bowl of them! Researchers have found fossil traces of these legumes dating back thousands of years – some even from 7000 BC, in Syria and Turkey – proving they were part of the common diet in all the countries facing the Mediterranean Sea, the Near Orient, and later even in the Americas.
The reason is simple: low in fat and high in protein, minerals, iron, and vitamins, nutritious lentils are some of the best alternatives to meat; thus, with chickpeas, beans, and grass peas, lentils have always made up an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, and have recently been included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, after feeding generations and generations of people for centuries.
Lentils are a small prodigy of nature. Every spring, between March and April, the unique microclimate of Castelluccio di Norcia – Saint Benedict’s hometown in Umbria, located in a basin at 1,500 meters above sea level – allows these beautiful plants to blossom with the colors of the sky. Fruits ripen in July, when they are picked, packaged, and put on display on the shelves of select shops and supermarkets. Castelluccio lentils surpass foreign competitors – which are cheaper but also less flavorful and interesting – thanks to their harmonious taste, in which mineral elements are softened by the pleasant local climate graced by sea breeze and mild temperatures year-round.
Onano, in the province of Viterbo, offers another ideal climate and territory for lentils, in a lesser-known yet more aristocratic variant. Officially documented as far back as 1561, the Onano lentil is also known as “lentil of the popes” and has won over gourmets for centuries with its creamy consistency: its peel dissolves while cooking, like the light, sandy soil where it grew, and this makes all the difference…
Without leaving Lazio, let’s make a leap in time as our imagination takes us to 1772, aboard the ship that carried 28 families of new settlers from the Kingdom of Sicily to the island of Ventotene. Each colonist was assigned 5 ‘tommole’ of forestland (the equivalent of 15,000 square meters) with a dated and countersigned dispatch from King Ferdinand III of Sicily.
After a long period of neglect, those same estates have come back to life thanks to the initiative of some young (and not-so-young) farmers, who’ve been implementing traditional methods in order to resume the production of excellent lentils in the volcanic island. The crop could be nothing less than exclusive, considering the small extent of land available. Yet Ventotene offers tourists – along with a glimpse of ancient history with Roman cisterns and a fishery – a “democratic” gourmet experience: the especially sapid lentils grown by the local consortium are sold unpackaged at the supermarket, so it’s easy for anyone to taste them and discover an echo of the Etruscan times in their iron-rich nature.
Going on in our imaginary journey, we return to the mainland and travel south, preparing for close encounters with some heroes of Third Millennium authentic food: the young farmers in Mormanno, Calabria – at the heart of Pollino National Park, 800 meters above sea level – who have placed their bets on this delicious, generous, and flavorful legume. What a great adventure!
Finally, we descent towards the sea: Ustica is the last stop in our journey around lentils as an essential ingredient in Mediterranean culture. The island’s lentils are reminiscent of its volcanic origin, and have a strong, intense flavor. They remain intact yet blend perfectly in soups. The difference in price compared with other varieties is justified by their excellent quality and rarity: sold only in exclusive shops, they disappear from June to September. For once, nature imposes its rhythms – and we feel like children, waiting for good things to come.
Like children, we return home and try our best to be patient while our lentils are cooking, knowing that we are about to savor millennia of history.