Zuppa di Pane

While visiting the Casentino region of Tuscany last May we were treated to a couple of typical primi in the form of two related soups, acqua cotta, or cooked water, and zuppa di pane, bread soup. Both are peasant dishes, designed to be eaten in lean times to use up the last scraps of whatever was left in the larder. According to Manuela, a local chef who cooked for us on two consecutive Saturdays, acqua cotta was devised by shepherds traveling with the transumanza, the migration of sheep across the mountains to fresh grazing grounds. By necessity it was made with ingredients that were easily carried or could be foraged along the way; stale bread, onions, tomatoes, wild greens and occasionally, potatoes or beans. Manuela served us at at least twelve dishes in those two combined meals but none were more appreciated than the the zuppa di pane and the acqua cotta

Yesterday while cleaning out the fridge I remembered Manuela's soups and dug out my notebook from the trip where I'd scribbled her instructions. I scrounged up everything I needed to make zuppa di pane, including some chickpeas that I'd cooked in the wood-fired oven on Monday. The version that follows is a fusion of the two recipes, with apologizes to Manuela for tinkering with her recipes. There is no need for the quantities to be exact.

Saute a medium chopped onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil until softened. Add a clove of chopped garlic and cook for another minute or so, until fragrant. Add a couple of chopped tomatoes (or a cup of leftover tomato sauce or puree), a few cups of stale bread cubes, a coarsely chopped potato, about a cup and a half of cooked chickpeas or other beans, and a few handfuls of fresh greens (I used nettles but spinach, chard, or kale would work just fine). Add water to cover and season generously with salt, pepper and cayenne (the cayenne adds an extra dimension to the dish - don't be tempted to leave it out). You can add other vegetables like celery, carrots, and zucchini and some fresh herbs but it's really not necessary.

Bring to a boil on the top of the stove, cover, and bake for about two hours, at around 250 F. You may take the lid off the pot for the last half hour or so if it seems too soupy or add extra water if it seems too dry.

Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature with a thread of your best olive oil and some shavings of Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano. Don't be tempted to scatter it with fresh herbs or fancy it up in any way. It is absolutely perfect just the way it is.

Italians might describe this soup as brutto ma buono, ugly but good, but there is beauty in its austerity. It was as delicious as it had been in Tuscany, perhaps even better; earthy, hearty, and healthy all at the same time. Despite the long cooking time all the flavors were distinct and clear. I polished off the entire pot.