Driving up switch back after switchback on a single lane road through the Apennines, Bossy turned to me and said “[Blonde] and McClure are keeping our eyes on the road.”
We had just made the two hour trek from Panicale to Norcia (the “Disneyland of sausage” according to the owner of our villa and the Bossy Blonde’s sometime boss, the Contessa di Mozzarella), and were heading towards Castelluccio, the place where the best lentils in the world are found. All of this sounds well and good I am sure, but we were winding up this steep, steep mountain like a corkscrew and there was barely a guardrail keeping us from plummeting to our deaths in the valley below.
“Neither [Blonde] nor McClure are billy goats, so this is good.” I said, trying my best not to rubberneck when we noticed an ambulance scraping an unfortunate motorcyclist off the road while four of his distressed, luckily leather-clad, biker friends looked on in panic about a mile or so up the climb.
I’d never really given lentils much thought. They’re beans and I’m American. I eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day because I’m both southern and superstitious, but other than that I wouldn’t say that they really have a place in my diet. But Bossy has made a couple of batches of lentils since we’ve been here and I’m kind of obsessed with them now. Even our Italian friends have been super impressed with the flavor and texture of her recipe, though one of them did tell me that lentils are basically just eaten in the winter for them, too, just like our black eyed peas.
I’ve seen cathedrals, ruins, paintings, the what’s what and who’s who of European culture in my travels over the years, but I had a newfound honesty about what I wanted, as opposed to what I had to see on this trip. I’m almost proud of the lack of culture I’ve visited because it has all been in the service of learning and tasting the great food I’ve encountered. Going to Castelluccio was like grabbing a lantern, a machete and jumping out into the woods on a quest for Bigfoot.
The Contessa di Mozzarella told Bossy that Castelluccio looked like the moon. I was having a really hard time imagining this as we drove through south east Umbria where the hills are rolly and scrubby; and once we left the main road towards Serravalle I felt like I was back in Vermont, not in the middle of the Italian countryside in the dead of summer and certainly nowhere near the moon. It was lush and mountainous and there was a beautiful river that we darted over back and forth on the winding road. The only reason I knew for sure I was, in fact, in Italy and NOT back in my most beloved Vermont was because we were tailing a vintage green apple colored Citroen with exhaust problems and instead of maple syrup being sold out of the back of trucks dotting the road, it was porchetta.
So even as we left Norcia and were even further to Castelluccio I thought there might be another exaggerated landscape situation on our hands; like when I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time and everyone was standing around it Ooohing and Ahhhing in languages I didn’t know and all I wanted to say was the emperor is totally naked. Clearly I have proven in the last few blog posts that I am nothing if not a disbeliever in other people’s estimations of things.
But there it was. The second we got to the top of this mountain we were driving on the moon. It was stunning. There were no trees save a few patches of conifers in the distance; they looked to me like little tufts of hair that got missed by the giant razor on the mountain’s face. And then, across the flat plain all the way atop the Apennines were random cars here and there with people just walking around this vastness and playing soccer and riding horses. It was like a Dali painting minus the melting clock and the naked people.
We parked the car and checked out the “hamlet” (our favorite former Al Italia Captain’s word for the place so tiny it’s hard to find on a map), buying a few sacks of lentils from this, their true homeland, and I felt like this pilgrimage was at least as successful as any I’d taken to the Louvre or the Uffizi.
Lentils on the Moon
Makes 6 cups; serves 6
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 celery stalk, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto (or pancetta, guanciale, bacon or whatever pork fat you may have lying around), finely chopped
1 1/2 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon double-concentrated tomato paste
1 pound Umbrian lentils (about 2½ cups)
2 quarts (8 cups) water
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put carrot and celery in food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
In a large sauté pan heat the olive oil over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the prosciutto and cook it until the fat has rendered, 2 to 3 minutes, then add the vegetables from the food processor into to the sauté pan. Add the onion to the pan and sauté for about 10 minutes until they have softened and reduced slightly, season with salt.
Add the garlic and cook it for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent it from browning, until it is fragrant. Move the vegetables to one side of the pan to create a bare spot and add the tomato paste to that spot and cook the tomato paste for 1 minute, stirring, to caramelize it.
Add the lentils and 3 cups of the water to the mix and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the lentils, stirring occasionally, until the water is almost absorbed, about 30 minutes. Add 2 more cups of water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Continue to cook the lentils, adding 1 or 2 cups of water as necessary so the lentils are covered but not submerged in water, and cook, stirring often, until the lentils are tender and creamy. Total cooking time will vary from 1 hour to 1 hour 45 minutes.
When the lentils are appropriately done, cook them down until they are a creamy consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Just before serving, drizzle in the olive oil and emulsify, stirring about 1 minute.
I felt like I had been through the Italian version of some surreal, maniacal “It’s A Small World” boat ride by the time we finished our lunch; after traveling through so many landscapes to get there and then after eating such a strange meal once we arrived (polenta with lentils, sausage from Norcia and mushrooms) I had the same dizzy feeling I did the last time I was at Disneyland with my niece and nephew. The bad news: they would have LOVED joining me for a lunch of lentils on the moon, even though they don’t like beans and I missed them. The good news: I was super high and I didn’t have to listen to the damn song to get there.