This weekend the Lucca food festival celebrated farro, (botanical name, Triticum dicoccum) that is now on the menu of many à la mode restaurants in different parts of the world. This ancient grain is often confused with Spelt, they are very closely related but different. Farro is the father of all grains and has been eaten throughout the Mediterranean and Near East for millennia. The Roman Legions marched on it and the poor survived on a polenta made from it. This wonderful nutty grain so versatile that it can be ground into flour, served in the same way as rice or simply added to soups and sweets.
For many years farro lost favour because it has a low yield and requires a longer milling cycle therefore it is expensive to produce. However it grows in poor soil, is disease resistant, meaning most production is organic. Farro is much more nutritious than wheat and also easier to digest. This seemingly perfect food is also high in fibre and low in calories. You might ask why aren’t we all eating it? Farro isn’t a fast food as it requires be soaking and/or cooking for a longer time. The price and small production has made this a luxury ingredient elsewhere but here in the province of Lucca and especially Garfagnana where it is mainly produced, it has never left the table. In this nook of the world, fads and fashion in food pass us by. The Tuscans and Lucchesi in particular, are very proud of their cuisine and like their produce and recipes to be local. Wonderful village restaurants serve simple ancient dishes that have remained unchanged for generations.
In fact I was at a seminar on Saturday evening and the famous Italian lifestyle and food critic Marisa Fumagalli of Corriere della Sera mentioned that it was virtually impossible to eat badly in Tuscany. These words started a heated argument on the floor. There were immigrants from other parts of Italy who complained that even in Lucca city it was impossible to get a meal that wasn’t Lucchese. This meant that the cooking in Lucca was dull and without innovation. It is true that virtually everything here is based on history and innovative chefs have failed in this city as the residents are so strongly wedded to their ways, however it has meant that customs have not been lost. I understand both points of views but I respect the decision of the reserved Lucchesi to guard their traditions. I am extra fortunate since I live in this region with an extraordinary Neapolitan cook who merges his southern ways with local ingredients. All our Lucchesi friends are always happy to try and complement him on the dishes his creates. I love tradition but agree that any art must always move forward to stay alive.
However in true Lucchese style I am going to leave you with a very basic but delicious soup recipe from the Garfagnana home of Farro.
Recipe for Poor Man’s Farro Soup
120g (4oz) Farro
2 lt (8 ½ cups) water
2 cloves Garlic
2 Bay leaves
100 ml (½ Cup) milk
4 large potatoes
I stalk of celery
30 ml (2 heaped tbsp) tomato paste
50 g (2 oz ) cubed pancetta
salt and pepper
1. Cover the farro and soak for 8 hours then throw the water out.
2. Place all the ingredients in the cold water in the pan except the potatoes and the milk and cook slowly for 2 hours.
3. Add the potatoes and cook for a further half hour or until the potatoes are cooked.
4. Squash the potatoes and add the milk, bring the soup to the boil again and serve with a dash of extra virgin olive oil and hot crusty bread.
Washed down with a nice glass of Chianti you can’t go wrong on a cold winter evening.