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Farro Soup (Food of the Roman Legions)
By Charlie Burke

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We have been members of Slow Food for several years. This organization has
world-wide membership and is dedicated to preserving food diversity and
opposing the industrialization of food production. Part of this mission is the
preservation of traditional foods and animal breeds, and when we were visiting
Lucca in northern Italy a few years ago, Slow Food was sponsoring dinners in
traditional trattorias where food was prepared using ancient recipes. As is often
the case, one of the simplest dishes, farro soup, was the most memorable.

Grano Farro is the original grain which fed the Mediterranean region for
thousands of years. Similar to spelt, it was ground into coarse flour and served
as the precursor of polenta in Italy long before corn was introduced from the
Americas. Farro served as the primary ration of the Roman Legions as they
conquered much of the European continent before it was replaced by higher
yielding grains after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Until recently, farro was grown only in a few isolated areas in northern Italy
before being rediscovered and produced in quantity in France for high end
restaurants. Farro now has returned to Italian menus, and its chewy texture,
nutty flavor and health benefits have created a demand which has resulted in its
return to Italian fields. It is often confused with spelt, but it is an entirely
different plant with a harder grain which maintains its texture after cooking.
Some say it requires soaking before cooking, but I see no difference in the
results and find it takes only a bit more cooking if the soaking is omitted. Farro
is available in some Italian specialty stores, but I find it easiest to buy on the

Farro soup is another dish which I never seem to make the same way twice, but
it’s always enjoyed by guests. I do follow Italian tradition and use a soffrito
(finely chopped onion, celery, carrot and sometimes parsley, along with
pancetta) as the base of the soup. I use home made stock or plain water, but
Italian cooks often use bouillon cubes to flavor their soups. I find my version
comes closest to the Italian restaurants’ soups when I use bouillon from cubes.

Six to eight generous servings:

2 cups whole farro, rinsed
2 quarts chicken stock, water or bouillon from cubes
¼ cup lean pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
¼ cup parsley, chopped (optional)
1 cup chopped canned or fresh tomatoes (use canned when fresh local tomatoes
are unavailable)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or wine vinegar
2 cups cooked navy or similar beans (optional)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Crusty bread slices, toasted (optional)

Heat a large pot over medium heat, film bottom with olive oil and add pancetta.
Cook, stirring,  until golden brown, add chopped vegetables and continue
cooking until vegetables start to brown. Add stock or bouillon, tomatoes,
tomato paste, lemon juice or vinegar and farro.

Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until farro is cooked – taste a couple
grains which will be slightly chewy but not hard when done(1 ½ hour or more –
time will vary depending on the age of the farro). Stir in the cooked beans, if
using, and add salt and pepper to taste. If bouillon is used, little or no
additional salt is needed. Add additional lemon juice or vinegar to taste.

Like any soup, the flavors improve with setting, so this is best when made a few
hours ahead and reheated. Farro absorbs a surprising quantity of liquid, so this
soup develops a thick consistency which is authentic, but it is easily thinned by
adding more stock.

To serve, place a piece of toasted bread into each bowl, ladle soup over the
bread, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and add grated Parmesan. Serve with a
salad and Italian red wine for an authentic northern Italian meal.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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