Since its winter here in Sydney, my thoughts always turn to soup. I don’t know about you, but I’m totally over pumpkin soup, Thai spiced, roasted or not, and empty-the-fridge-of-old-vegetables soup too. Instead, I’m far more interested in recreating the lovely Tuscan Ribollita that I tried several years ago in Lucca, or, more recently, the Umbrian bean and farro soup that I had in Spoleto. I know, it sounds awful, but believe me, it was sooo delicious that I’m still dreaming about it.
We found ourselves in Spoleto on a particularly crisp but bright winters day after looking at some apartments for sale nearby. It was at about 2pm early in January and hardly anything was open, hardly anyone was around, and we were hungry. Fortunately we were told to head towards the Roman Arch and then a few doors along we’d find a little restaurant called Il Tempio del Gusto. What a find! Located very near the Roman arch/gate of Drusus and Germanicus, (which happens to date from 23C.E.) it was a warm and welcome sight.
I ordered the Umbrian bean soup and my husband ordered a pasta dish, but we were treated to tastes of various starters, sides and desserts that were all absolutely delicious, so that we ended up being treated to a lighter version of a three-course meal. It was wonderful! However, the star dish for me was their bean soup. I seem to remember it having lashings of really soft, well-cooked beans, farro & vegetables, and a slightly smoky flavour, with a good fine grating of parmesan and swish of truffle oil over the top. It was sublime. I recommended the place to a friend of mine who also raved about it on her return. I loved that in the lower rooms ~ which are below street level ~ you can see the remains of the Roman foundations and walls that the restaurant has been built within. Its quirky, but the food is fab. If you’re ever in Spoleto, I recommend it highly.
I’ve searched and searched the interwebs since then to try to find a recipe that resembled that soup. I could only find one in English that seemed close ~ but was missing the slightly smoky bacony element. I had better luck searching in italian, for zuppa fagiolini di umbria. The recipes all seem to contain dried beans and a simple soffritto and passata; some recommend using italian lardo (lardo is very much like a block of solid fat that is cured like and maybe cut off a lump of prosciutto) as the oil/flavouring to sauté the vegetables in. Some recipes add diced potatoes, some add mushrooms or green beans. In my opinion, recipes are only a guide.
The soup I had in Spoleto definitely had mushrooms and possibly cabbage, but I don’t think it had potato. Instead of using the lard (which is impossible to find in my part of Sydney) I decided to make my own stock with some smoked bacon bones the day before I made the soup.
I say ‘I made’ the stock; but seriously, I hardly did a thing to make it. I simply threw the bones into a large oven-proof dish along with a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns and the leafy tops of a bunch of celery, covered it all in water, and I put the dish into the just warm 110°C oven overnight to let it all simmer away overnight. A slow cooker would have done the trick perfectly — but I don’t have one. Into that same warm oven I put another oven dish with the dried beans and farro covered with lots of water — I suppose I had about 3/4 of a cup of mixed dried legumes and farro and 2 litres of water. Nothing else. Lids on and let it all cook slowly overnight. In the morning while its still warm, I take the largest bones out of the stock and put the rest into the fridge. When its cold and the fat has solidified, I strain it, to get the peppercorns and celery and small bones and solidified fat out. The dried beans & farro will be thick and unctuous.
Then, in the evening, I slowly sautéed the soffritto for maybe 15-20 minutes with a good pinch of salt & pepper and a few twigs of thyme. Then simply add the stock and the beans and warm through and its done. Top with some grated parmesan and a swirl of truffle oil if you have it. I know the photo doesn’t do it justice. All I can say is that even my son — who hates all forms of legumes — loved it. It doesn’t have that grainy texture of lentils or beans at all. Its hearty, warming, and incredibly cheap to make. And it reminds me of that wintery day in that wonderful restaurant, Il Tempio del Gusto.