While in Umbria on vacation a few years ago, we went in search of fabled Castelluccio lentils. We had seen these lentils for sale when we were visiting the town of Norcia—so devastated by Italy’s earthquakes earlier this year—but despite the window displays all over town in Norcia, we wanted to see these lentils for ourselves in their natural habitat.
We headed by car to il Piano Grande, a large alpine valley 4,000 feet above sea level in the central Italian Apennine mountains. Arriving on the vast plateau, surrounded on all sides by mountains, we lost all sense of distance and proportion. We spotted the tiny town of Castelluccio in the distance as we entered the valley: it rests on high rocks we could see, but we could not tell whether it would take 15 minutes or two hours to get there—only the GPS let us know.
Even in October, as we drove through the plateau the colors begin shifting as the angle of the light changed. I’ve seen pictures of this area in springtime and it’s filled with wildflowers. When we were there, lavender and mustard provided their own colorful backdrop.
As we got closer to the town of Castelluccio, we began to see that the town we thought was tiny was, in fact, tiny! There are just a few hundred homes, with no trees in sight. But then we began to see spots of color on the buildings; we later found that the residents had planted all manner of potted plants bursting with vivid color.
We parked and started scouting the town. We quickly found an overlook that had an almost 360-degree view. As when we drove toward Castelluccio, all sense of scale was gone. We could see distant patches of farmland on the hillsides growing lavender, but could not tell whether they were 100 feet or 1,000 feet away–it was impossible to determine because the scale of this remote valley threw all our normal means of determining distance awry. Only the occasional cow, providing a reference point, gave the secret away.
As we walked through town we came across a woman in a small open shed selling lentils. We learned that her name was Nonna Derna and that the lentils came from her family’s farm nearby, in the Piano Grande. She told us that she used to run the farm herself years ago, but that now it was run by her sons. We had struck gold—we had found our lentils! We bought two big bags to take home. [Later I discovered these lentils are easily bought on-line in the USA.]
With lentils in hand, we started scouting a place for lunch. The day was breezy but warm and we found a small restaurant off the main path to have lentil soup – the ultimate prize. The lunch was a wonderfully simple meal of lentil soup and roasted pork chops with local red wine. When we asked about the soup, our server said it was nothing more then Castelluccio lentils, a clove of garlic, water and salt. At the end, a small drizzle of olive oil. Delicious! A small calico cat joined us, wanting some of our meal!
Here’s a recipe for lentil soup using Castelluccio lentils. It’s a little elevated for the American table, but you can always return to the simple preparation.
- 2 oz finely diced pancetta
- ¼ yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 cup Castelluccio lentils
- 2 cups mixture of chicken broth and water
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 stalk celery (cut in half, if needed, to fit in the pot)
- 2 slices rustic bread, sliced, toasted, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil
- In a pan large enough to hold the lentils, add a teaspoon of olive oil over low heat. When hot, add the finely diced pancetta. Slowly stir to render out the fat and get the cubes crispy (if you cook too fast or at too high a heat, the fat will just get sealed in).
- When the pancetta is crispy, remove to a small bowl, leaving the fat behind.
- Add the diced onions and add a pinch of salt. Stir until the onions are very soft. Cover the pan to help the softening.
- Rinse the lentils under cold water and drain. Add them to the onions and stir until the water begins to evaporate a bit.
- Add the broth and water, celery and garlic (Do not salt yet).
- Cook the lentils over low heat until they are cooked through, about 30 minutes. If they are still too al dente, add a little more water and cook for 15 minutes more.
- When done, discard the celery and garlic.
- Serve in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of cheese and the crispy pancetta bits.
- Have a glass of wine to toast Nonna Durna!!