Why would you use just one word – ‘soup’ – when you can use dozens? Minestrone, minestra, minestrella, minestrina, pottagio, zuppa – not to mention regional and provincial dialect for what amounts to the same thing – are just a few of the words Italians use to compartmentalize, categorize and make some kind of sense of their infinite variety of soups. Indeed, many soups have names of their own – the famous Tuscan ribollita or acquacotta, Mantovan stracciatella, virtù from Abruzzo [which some claim to be the King of Minestrone] - are just a few that apparently deserve a name in their own right. To confuse matters further, precise definitions are somewhat superfluous given that names vary from one region to the next. If you have a hankering for a bowl of fish soup you might think zuppa di pesche! Well, think again. If you are in Marche you’ll have to look out for brodetto. Alternatively, if you are in Livorno on Tuscany’s northern coast, they go by the name cacciucco (with 5 ‘C’s – other parts of the same region settle for 4!). Travel a few miles up the coast, however, and you can forget about a bowl of cacciucco: you’ll need to ask for either buridda or ciuppin. Why don’t they just call it fish soup, you might well ask? Firstly, because that would be too easy: And, secondly - and more seriously - because we need to have some system for sorting out the multitude of different styles of soup made throughout the country. Otherwise, next time you visit a restaurant you might end up ordering a soup swimming in broth when you wanted say a heavier soup served over slices of bread.
To try and simplify, ‘minestra’ is a general term used widely throughout the country referring to a first course dish generally (but not always) of vegetables, pasta, rice or cereals cooked and served in broth. The range of dishes that fall into this category is practically endless. The term ‘minestra’ derives from the custom of ‘serving up’ – from the verb minestrare – the first course into bowls by the patriarchal head of the family.
A minestrone, as the name implies, is a larger version of minestra. More ingredients are used in the preparation of minestrone including ingredients such as potatoes, pumpkins and legumes which are used both to bulk up and thicken the dish. They say that the greatest expression of minestrone is the so-called virtù from Abruzzo. According to a local legend, true virtù is supposed to contain 7 ingredients, each of which was originally picked by one of 7 virtuous young girls. I can’t quite see myself how this legend arose given that a mere 7 ingredients in a bowl of virtù would probably be seen as rather miserly. What can be said with certainty is that it is a dish traditionally eaten on the 1st of May to signify the end of the winter and the start of spring. The ingredients used in the preparation are supposed to signify the changing seasons. In the preparation, the cupboards would be emptied of winter stores of ingredients such as dried vegetables, beans and pulses along with leftover cured meats to which would also be added a variety of early spring vegetables and wild herbs. It’s a great dish, one of the few that transgresses two seasons and I can see why many consider it King of the Minestrone.
Of course, I’d be amiss not to mention the famous Tuscan ribollita. The famous Tuscan ribollita starts life as a humble minestra – that is, a bowl of vegetables cooked in broth. The next day a miraculous transformation takes place when the same bowl of vegetables is reheated, thereby becoming a ribollita – literally, twice-cooked! However, joking aside, ribollita is worthy of its name as anyone who has tried true ribollita will testify. The re-heating of leftover soup, a virtuous practice born of necessity, has the effect of concentrating the flavors, resulting in a denser, highly flavorful soup. In many respects, the story of ribollita is the story of minestra or minestrone. Most Italian soups derive from cucina povera – or peasant cooking. The ingredients used were dictated by seasonality, local availability and whatever happened to be lying around in the kitchen larder. Today the same principles apply. Like most of my neighbors, I make minestrone at least three times a week – if anything, it’s a great way to get your ‘5-a-day’. But what I put into the minestrone will depend on what’s freshest and best at the local market. There are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s a question of experimentation, using whatever you have to hand and understanding the local ingredients.
The Minestrone King
1 or 2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
1 medium onion
100g broad beans
100g Brussel sprouts
100g spinach leaves
50g small pasta
1 heaped tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
100g pork loin
100g diced pancetta
2 litres vegetable or chicken stock
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Finely chop the onion. Peel and dice the carrot and celery stalks. Place a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan and add the onion, carrot and celery. Secure the lid and cook over a gentle heat until softened (about 5-6 minutes). Chop the pork loin into thin strips and add this to the pot together with the diced pancetta. Cook for another 5-6 minutes. Whilst this is cooking, quarter the Brussel sprouts, dice the pumpkin into 1-2cm cubes and roughly chop the spinach leaves. Add these to the pot together with the stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 40 minutes. Next add the pasta (any type is fine as long as it is small) and continue cooking until the pasta is cooked (which should take about 5 minutes). Finally, check for seasoning, stir through the freshly chopped parsley, and serve with slices of rustic country bread.
Note: Ingredients can be varied according to taste and season.