31 May 2012

AUNTIE PASTA: Longing for Lentils

SARONNO, Italy - The Italian island of Ventotene is not exactly a household name. It’s a tiny little volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, 25 nautical miles off the coast of Gaeta, right at the border between Lazio and Campania. The island is less than 2 miles long (3 kilometers) and less than half a mile wide (800 meters). Today, 708 people call Ventotene home, but back in the days of the Roman Empire, Ventotene was not a place you wanted to be, in fact you could say it was an ancient Alcatraz.
 Island of Ventotene
It was called Pandataria back then, and it was a strategic maritime hub that anchored the Roman trading empire. The Emperor Augustus radically transformed this remote barren island into his personal seaside resort and a thriving port community. Engineers of today marvel at what the Emperor constructed 2000 years ago, including a system of underground aqueducts that harvested rainwater and an impressive man-made harbor, hand-carved from the seawalls. 

Augustus may have turned the island into a thriving resort, but it soon became infamous as the island where he banished his daughter Julia in 2 BC. It seems Julia was the Paris Hilton of her day, and her father did not approve of her wild and wooly ways. He decided that perhaps she needed a time out, a five year time out, and so she was sent to Ventotene to rethink her behavior.

Apparently banishing unruly children was the thing to do back in those days because the Emperor Tiberius banished his grandniece Agrippina the Elder to Ventotene. And Agrippina’s youngest daughter Julia Livilla was also exiled there – twice. Then there was Claudia Octavia, the first wife of the Emperor Nero. She was banished to Ventotene in 62 AD and even Saint Flavia Domitilla, the granddaughter of the Emperor Vespasian, was banished to the island. She is the same Saint Flavia Domitilla the catacombs in Rome are named after.

So it is easy to see why, in the past, people were not exactly rushing to go to Ventotene, especially women.

But that’s all changed. Today, Ventotene is once again a resort island made newly famous as the place where five ancient Roman ships were recently discovered. The ships are between 1,600 and 1,900 years old, and were laden with - among other things - wine, olive oil and a fish sauce called garum, which is much like the fish sauce used today in Asian cooking. 

It was not easy to grow food or develop a cuisine on an island made of volcanic rock, but with a little help, one plant seemed to thrive, red lentils. And from the red lentils, the Ventotenese made zuppa – soup. This is a perfect summer dish as it is served, like so many Italian soups, at room temperature.
Zuppa di Lenticchie di Ventotene

Serves 4
250 grams of lentils (any color will do)
350 grams of tomatoes
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf (or a few basil leaves)
Extra virgin olive oil

The original recipe calls for dipping the tomatoes in boiling water for a half a minute and peeling them, cutting them into quarters, removing the seeds and dicing them. Honestly, you can use any good quality canned tomatoes and save yourself a lot of time and still get good results. 

Lentil Soup
Carefully check the lentils to eliminate any tiny stones or foreign debris, and then wash them in abundant water.

Put the lentils, the garlic clove and the chopped tomatoes in a casserole dish with about 2 liters of water. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat and let it cook for about 45 minutes (or until the lentils are tender, but not mushy). Add a little more boiling water if needed. 

When the lentils are cooked, add salt and serve the soup in a shallow bowl with an added drizzle of olive oil. Serve at room temperature. If you want, you can also add some cooked rice to this dish.

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