Castelluccio is a little Italian little situated 28 kilometres from Norcia in the region of Umbria. To reach it, you have to take a panoramic road running across an upland plain, one of the most extensive in Central Italy.
We are actually in the National Park of the Sibillini Mountains, at an altitude of 1,452 metres. You may be wondering why this small village is so famous. The explanation lies in Castelluccio lentils, a variety of lentils that is so fine and tasty that it has been awarded IGP status.
What are Castelluccio lentils? The basic facts
Lentils, belonging to the Papilionaceae family, are rich in fibre, mineral salts and vitamins. The UN, with the intention of highlighting their many virtues, has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Ever since antiquity, they have been called the “poor man’s meat” (25% of proteins). Studies on fossil remains have shown that they were cultivated in Asia as far back as 7000 B.C., and from the region we now know as Syria they spread throughout the Mediterranean basin.
The tinier the lentils (lens culinaris) the more precious they are, which explains the prestige of those grown in Castelluccio. Their fine tender skin enables them to be cooked without prior soaking, which saves at least four hours. Castelluccio lentils are the answer to any health-conscious foodie’s dreams: proteins, vitamins and mineral salts make them an ideal choice for all those in need of a diet rich in iron, potassium and phosphorus, yet low in fats.
How Castelluccio lentils are grown
The lentil plant is quite comfortable in karst lands, which are not particularly fertile. However, the quantity of lentils harvested each year is limited, which makes them a niche product. At an altitude of almost 1500 metres, the climate is cold: since Castelluccio lentils are not attacked by the pulse weevil (an insect whose larvae feed off pulses), they do not need to be treated with preservatives.
The farmers of this area were among the first to introduce organic farming methods: every year, on the same land, they alternate lentil crops with a wheat and pasture rotation cycle, without using chemical fertilisers.
The winters in Castelluccio are harsh. As soon as the snow melts, following the first new moon of Spring, the land is ploughed in preparation for sowing. Early in May, the older farm labourers carry out rituals of propitiation against fire, storms, drought and locusts. They plant a small cross made from olive twigs in each field and then scatter charcoal blessed with drops of holy water onto the ground.
In June, the fields are filled with blossom and the tourists flock to enjoy the sight of the famous “flowering of Castelluccio" (pictured above). Harvesting takes place in July, while August is dedicated to threshing and in September the lentils are taken to the Cooperative to be packaged and distributed.
How to cook Castelluccio lentils
Lentils are always eaten cooked. They may be blended to take on a creamy consistency, added to salads or eaten as a stew combined with a little tomato sauce; they may take the form of a loaf or a soup. Vegan burgers can be made out of lentils. It is customary in Italy to eat them on New Year’s eve to bring good luck (especially with regards to money) and a prosperous future.
This custom derives from an ancient Roman tradition of offering a “scarsella” (a little leather bag for holding coins) filled with lentils, in the hope that they might turn into money. However, Italian starred chefs have become used to including them in their menus all through the year, not only on New Year’s Eve, and making them a feature of haute cuisine. Chef Massimo Bottura at his Osteria Francescana in Modena has created some extraordinary dishes such as Ravioli of Cotechino (fresh pork sausage) and Lentils in a Sauce of Beans.
How to pair lentils with other foods and wine
Lentils have a particular affinity with garlic, rosemary, cotechino and shellfish. The high protein content, responsible for stimulating saliva, calls for a wine with a fairly high alcohol content or a moderate astringency; red wines with a modest tannin content are also recommended.