USTICA LENTILS

1000 seeds per 20 grams. Perhaps these two numbers are enough to give you an idea of the size, weight and delicacy of this pulse, which is protected by Slow Food and cultivated exclusively in the fertile volcanic soil of the Island of Ustica.
With its dark brown colour and tones ranging from grey to dark green, the inside is a bright orange colour. Ustica lentils are the result of careful selection by farmers over the centuries and adaptation to the specific environmental conditions. In fact, the lentil has developed unique characteristics when adapting to the area where it is grown. The climate and fertile soil of the island, which is extremely high in mineral salts, lend the Ustica lentil its excellent organoleptic properties.
It has a particularly intense aroma and flavour, while its softness makes it easy and fast to cook without the need for soaking. Nonetheless, it has considerable resistance and keeps its shape even after cooking.
Ustica lentils were a staple of the diet in the area during the Fascist period, and Antonio Gramsci mentions them in his letters.
The archetypal peasant food, lentils are still a fundamental ingredient in local recipes today. The two classic recipes are soup, enriched with local vegetables and scented with basil or wild dill, and “pasta e lenticchie” (pasta with lentils), prepared using broken spaghetti.
Ustica lentils are particularly versatile in the kitchen, and work well paired with everything from sausage to seafood. They have even been the subject of one of Italy’s most prestigious cooking magazines, Il Gambero Rosso, which mentioned the Ustica lentil as one of the top ten Italian types of lentil.

The production cycle

The lentils are sown from mid-December to mid-January and are harvested in the first half of June. The farming methods used respect the environment and nature, without using either fertilizers or pesticides, and weeds are removed by hand.
Work in the fields starts at the end of the summer, because before sowing the land must be repeatedly ploughed in order to help it hold water during the autumn rains that follow the dry summer, and to make the land more suitable for sowing and allowing the seedlings to grow. From the end of May to the beginning of June, the plant withers, giving way to the harvest which will see the plants pulled up and threshed to separate the lentils from the rest of the plant. The harvest is nearly always done by hand due to the stony ground and small size of the plants, which make it impossible to use mechanical harvesters. This operation takes place at dawn, when the plants are still moist, in order to avoid the dry pods from opening and dropping the lentils on the ground.
In the past, threshing involved donkeys dragging heavy stones over the plants to crush them, after which the farmers would throw the plants in the air with forks in order to let the wind separate the straw from the lentils – a process that would take a whole family several days.
After the Slow Food movement was founded, a threshing machine was introduced to the island and now performs the same job in a few hours.
The Slow Food protection has also meant that a lot of previously abandoned land has been put back into use, restoring part of the typical rural scenery of small fields and dry stone walls. As well as being an important economic factor, the Ustica lentil has become the symbol of a return to almost-forgotten agricultural methods, leading to a restoration of the landscape and the rediscovery of the island’s identity and traditions.
Today, all the farmers approved by the Slow Food movement are members of the Lenticchia di Ustica association, and only use certified organic methods. All packs of Ustica lentils grown by Slow Food farmers are sold with the same label.

Ustica lentils soup recipe

The island’s traditional dish is the classic soup, the ingredients of which change according to family traditions.
The traditional Ustica soup is prepared using various types of vegetables according to the season. Onion, courgettes and tomatoes are essential ingredients. The summer version uses Lagenaria courgettes with their sprouts, known as “tenerumi,” and basil, added at the end. The winter version, on the other hand, may see courgette replaced with pumpkin and chard. Some versions also include potatoes. Another recipe includes celery, cauliflower or broccoli. Wild dill or rosemary are often used to add flavour, together with garlic. Chilli pepper can be added if desired.
The lentils are placed in cold water and slowly brought to the boil. Do not add salt, to make cooking easier, and stir until the lentils are completely soft. The vegetables can be sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil, or added raw at the same time as the lentils. A little extra-virgin olive oil should always be added in the plate at the end.
The soup can be eaten on its own, or accompanied by toasted bread rubbed with raw garlic. For a complete and balanced meal in terms of carbohydrates and protein, traditional broken spaghetti can be added.