Italian

This Italian Soup Is a Folk Tale Come to Life

by:
March 14, 2017

Acquacotta is an ancient soup, a long tradition of the Maremma, a rugged coastal area straddling southern Tuscany and northern Lazio. Once known as a meal for traveling shepherds, cowboys, and fishermen, who could throw things into a pot of boiling water wherever they happened to be in order to make a meal, today it's recognized as one of the defining dishes of this area—even if there is a different version of this dish in every town (nay, household) that you visit.

Acquacotta, new cookbook by Emiko Davies Photo by Emiko Davies

In a well-known European folktale known as the Stone Soup (Una Zuppa di Sasso in Italian), an old, starving wolf holding a sack containing a stone approaches a village of wary but curious animals. He asks the hen if he can make a stone soup over her fireplace. One by one, the neighboring animals pitch in to suggest additions to make the soup more flavorful—a celery stick, some leek, zucchini. In the end, the animals pull up chairs around the fireplace and have multiple servings of the delicious soup, with wobbling glasses of wine in their hands and conversation on their tongues.

The moral of the story changes from country to country and storyteller to storyteller—sometimes the tale emphasizes the soup maker's ability to trick his host into giving him free food. But my favorite is the one detailed above, which I read in my daughter's beautifully illustrated picture book by Anaïs Vaugelade. It's my favorite because, to me, it represents a central tenet of Italian food: conviviality. It also has a bit of that, "I like to put such and such ingredient in that dish" or "My mother or grandmother always did this but she would put two cloves of garlic" vibe, which so often influences how recipes are learned, passed on and cooked. To me, acquacotta is stone soup.

Viterbo style Acquacotta Photo by Lauren Bamford

I think so many recipes born out of Tuscan cucina povera (peasant cooking) came about this way—from having nothing and needing to invent something to feed the family with what is on hand, whether it's a piece of stale bread, some weeds from the field outside, or just water. And, with luck, an egg from the chicken coop outside. This is, essentially, the recipe for acquacotta. Like the folk tale's stone soup, there are many, many versions of acquacotta, changing depending on which town you are in, what you can scrounge around for, and how hungry you are.

Acquacotta literally means "cooked water," or more specifically, “cooked in water,” and it describes the basic process of the meal: boiling vegetables in water. It could be made outdoors, on the road, or in a boat. Fishermen of yore might have added some small fish from their catch, the sort of thing that you couldn't sell at the market. Ingredients to throw in water could have included some dried, stale bread (bread was often dried to be portable for traveling and keeping well); garlic; wild herbs; and jagged-edged greens foraged from nearby fields during the spring and autumn. At home, onions, potatoes or tomatoes from the vegetable made for great additions.

Saturnia in Maremma, Tuscany Photo by Emiko Davies

In some places acquacotta is more solid and chunky, letting the bread soak up any liquid. In other places, it's a watery broth, with plenty of vegetables floating through it. Often, an egg for each person is cracked into the simmering soup, where it poaches, or they are beaten together with a handful of pecorino cheese and poured over the top of the bubbling soup. In Grosseto, you can find strips of red peppers added to the soup, along with some crumbled pork sausage.

Tuscan gastronome and writer Aldo Santini wrote in Cucina Maremmana (1991), “In Maremma tutto si assomiglia e niente si ripete.” That means: In Maremma, everything is similar but nothing is repeated. He was referring to the preparation of wild boar, one of the area's other celebrated dishes, but it applies to acquacotta too. Every town has its own version and each is decidedly different from the other, but they all share the same name and, more importantly, the same concept.

This is an edited extract from Acquacotta: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany's Secret Silver Coast by Emiko Davies (published by Hardie Grant Books, 2017).

Have you heard of the Stone Soup tale before? Which version? Tell us in the comments!

4 Comments

caninechef March 15, 2017
Similar to Windischgirl's version below but my version was about a poor starving soldier travelling by himself by foot. Maybe trying to get home and no one would help him out with something to eat.
 
Windischgirl March 14, 2017
"Stone Soup" is one of my favorite legends. In the version I've heard, set in the Middle Ages, a student passing through a town is looking for room and board. But the townspeople are cold hearted and alienated from each other, and all refuse him. So he goes to the town square, builds a campfire, and heats a pot of water. This piques the curiosity of the townspeople, who approach him one by one, asking what he's doing. "Making Stone Soup" he replies, dropping a round rock into the water. He offers to share a bowl, and each person who approaches him offers an ingredient. Eventually the whole town turns out and neighbor starts talking to neighbor over a bowl of very rich soup, and friendships are formed. Meanwhile, having done his good deed, the student quietly slips away. It's a reminder to me about hospitality and the transforming power of a shared meal. No matter where we come from, or what our roots are, we all eat!<br />I also love recipes like this because they reflect our ancestors' deep respect for food and the labor involved in bringing food from the seed in the farmer's palm to the plate on the table. Nothing goes to waste.
 
irina March 14, 2017
This is like Garbage Soup. One of our family faves when it's cold outside. I always keep some country ham or kielbasa or whatever in freezer. Saute it with onions and start putting whatever veg you have available. Beans, greens, quinoa etc. Cook for a while in broth, water and wine and serve with country bread. Fantastic and tasty and cozy on a cold night.<br />Cheers<br />irina
 
Valhalla March 14, 2017
My copy literally just arrived minutes ago, can't wait to dive in!