From Umbria, with brio

Pub date February 27, 2008

As a member of the lentil-involved community, I was honored and elated to be presented with a small sack of organic Umbrian lentils at a recent Slow Food shindig for organic Umbrian farmers. (Organic Umbrian Agriculture: World Tour ’08.) The lentils, from a producer called Terra Colombaia ("pigeon coop"), were uncooked, of course; cooking not included. I would have to handle that part myself, and I welcomed the chance, which would come later, once I’d gotten home. Meantime, I practiced saying lenticchie — the Italian word for lentils, and a jollier word than ours it is — with the jolly Umbrian farmers seated all around me at Acme Chophouse. I asked them if they liked America, and they smiled and nodded knowingly without quite saying yes. I know this drill; it’s the universal language for "We hate Bush!" But hope, somehow, abides. In that spirit, the subject of Hillary was steered clear of.

The lentils, liberated from their plastic sack, proved to be a motley if lovable crew, smaller than the Umbrian lentils I’ve long been accustomed to seeing at the market, and far more varied in color. The dominant shade in both iterations is a mocha brown, but in the commercial version I usually buy (from Emilio Bartolini, an Umbrian concern known mainly for olive oils), that shade is deep and consistent. The organic lentils, by contrast, have reds, browns, grays, and greens lurking in the mix; it’s like a legume version of M&Ms. Also, the organic lentils are smaller, about the size of their hard green Puy cousins from France to the north. Size matters in American cosmology, and small is a sin in more ways than I can decently mention, but in lentilology, small is an advantage, since small Umbrian lentils cook more quickly than the bigger ones — a boon for the harried cook. Slow food … fast! And even quick-cooking Umbrian lentils are resistant to turning mushy; this is a boon for everyone, except people trying to make dal, and they should be using those reddish orange Indian lentils anyway.

Several of the Umbrian farmers spoke surprisingly good English, and when that didn’t suffice, there were enough Spanish, German, and French words at the table to fill the gaps. Still, we all thrilled to lenticchie — not quite a rousing chorus, but close.

Paul Reidinger