Author: Grégoire Duffal (Global Bean) Based on information sent by Ottavia Pieretto (Slow Food International) and Cecilia Antoni (Bean.beat)
For most Italians, it is difficult to remember a winter holiday dinner in Italy without lentils on the table.
The lentils seems to be a very old tradition that roots into ancient Roman times. Some sources say that lentils were generally given as a gift on the first days of the New Year to relatives or loved ones: “the gift had to be enclosed in a pouch, which was hung on the belt and carried as an object of good luck.”
Some other sources link lentils to New Year’s Eve because their shape reminds of little coins: they are small when raw, but they grow when cooked, which represents the economic growth the people are looking for! Thus, they are the symbol of good luck, and must be eaten at the end or in the beginning of the year to ensure it will be prosperous.
Lentils are prepared in many ways in Italy. In Northern Italy, lucky lentils are served on New Year’s Day paired with pork sausages native to the region, called “cotechino” sausages. Pork is thought to bring abundance, prosperity and wealth because it’s so fatty and rich, and because any cut of pork can be used.
Unfortunately, nowadays 98% of the lentils eaten in Italy are imported, from North America.
Why eat lentils?
Overall, they are a wonderful alternative to animal proteins: very precious for our health, low-cost and pretty quick to cook, a key point that gives them some advantages over other legumes that need a long time in soaking and boiling.
“Lentil is one of the five major pulses produced in the world, and the annual production is around 4.5 million tonnes. It is majorly produced in Canada, the United States, Turkey, Australia, and India. It is an excellent source of protein and contains low fat, which helps to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and obesity. […] In many of the developing countries, lentil is considered as a stable source of protein due to its higher dietary protein and complex carbohydrate content.” (Source: abstract of “Lentils” in: Manickavasagan, A., Thirunathan, P. (eds), Pulses)
Let’s introduce: the Colline Ennesi Black Lentil
In the Sicilian interior, where it is cold and damp in the winter and hot and dry in the summer, farmers have long cultivated traditional varieties of legumes in the period between winter and spring.
These varieties have been passed down through the generations, and the black lentil is one of the most characteristic, due to its unusual color. The small lentils have a black outer layer, but are brownish-red inside. Cultivated in loose soil, the seeds are rich in iron and protein, and the plants improve the soil’s fertility.
Their genetic variability (shown by the frequent presence of non-black seeds) is not a defect; on the contrary, it allows them to survive and adapt to climate change that is making these areas increasingly arid.
Until the 1950s, the black lentils were very common and were cultivated in rotation with durum wheat and forage crops. A very small number of growers kept the seeds and continued to cultivate them following the traditional techniques, generally for domestic consumption only.
The black lentil plants do not need to be irrigated and are cultivated without the use of any plant protection products. At the end of May, as the plants gradually turn yellow, they grow heavier and end up lying on the ground. They are then cut by hand, using scythes, and left to dry in small bundles. After a few hours, larger sheaves are formed, known as “regni”. When they are fully dry, they are carefully transported to the farmyard for threshing. This is a long, laborious process: during the hottest hours of the day, the plants are beaten with pitchforks and turned over again and again. This allows the seeds to fall to the bottom and the straw to rise to the top. Everything is thrown in the air using pitchforks so that the wind can help separate the seeds. The last phase involves sorting out impurities and is traditionally carried out by the women.
Black lentils have an intense flavor. Traditionally cooked in soups, thanks to an unusual mineral note they are also excellent with fish and seafood, particularly shrimp.
They are harvested between the end of May and the first days of June. They are available year-round.
(Source: Fondazione Slowfood)
Cecilia Antoni’s recipe for the new year: Orange and lentil salad with fennel
This is Cecilia’s favourite custom! She strictly adheres to it every year on New Year’s Eve: eating a large portion of lentils ensures good luck and money for the new year!
Italians, Czechs and people in the southern US also do it. The only thing to remember is to use a type of lentil that does not fall apart when cooked, as the lentils should be well rounded when eaten. Cecilia uses the dark green Le Puy lentil in the orange salad with fennel, dates and pistachios to start the New Year.
for 4 persons
- 200 g dried Puy lentils
- 4 blood oranges
- 6 dried dates
- 2 tablespoons pistachios
- 1 small onion
- 1 fennel bulb
- fresh mint or fresh rosemary
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp white wine vinegar (I always use my homemade pomegranate vinegar).
- 3 tbsp nut oil
- salt & pepper
- optional: fresh horseradish
- Rinse the lentils well and bring to the boil in twice the amount of water. Simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, until they’re coked but still somewhat firm to the bite.
- Fillet the oranges and cut into slices.
- Finely slice the dates and fennel.
- Peel and roughly chop the pistachios.
- Finely dice the onion. Chop the mint or rosemary.
- Mix the cooled lentils with the fennel, orange slices, dates and onions. Sprinkle with pistachios and herbs.
- Vinaigrette: season the vinegar with salt and pepper, add the oil. Mix well and pour over the lentil salad.
(Source: Bean Beat)
For more fresh lentil ideas, check out the recipe of the Watermelon lentil pizza in our Recipe collection!