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.
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.
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.
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).
- 2 large bunches of wild chicory (see note for substitutions)
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 small potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
- 10 1/2 ounces (300 grams) of fresh tomatoes, chopped
- 1 pinch of salt
- Water to cover
- 4 eggs
- 4 slices of stale bread from a good, dense, wood fired country loaf (or if fresh, dry out the slices in a low oven)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- A handful of chopped, wild fennel and calamint (if unavailable, use fennel tops in place of the wild fennel and oregano, marjoram, or mint in place of the calamint)
Have you heard of the Stone Soup tale before? Which version? Tell us in the comments!