Lentils

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The leguminous lentil is one of the oldest cultivated plants, and its seeds have been found at early Stone Age archaeological sites throughout the Middle East dating to 8000 B.C.  It is thought that it might be indigenous specifically to Northern Turkey, where the original form of the species can still be found in the wild.  Once domesticated it became a very important crop plant in Egypt and eventually was introduced to Greece and Rome.  The Romans much appreciated lentils and the great Roman epicure Apicius wrote many recipes for them. 

In the present day, aside from being popular at New Year, lentils are also eaten during Lent, the Catholic fasting period of 40 days prior to Easter. Because of the seed’s high protein content and low price, they came to be known as the poor Catholic’s substitute for meat and fish.   Apparently there is no etymological association between the seeds and the fast.  The Italian lenticchie and English lentil are both derived from lenticula, the diminutive form of the plants Latin name, Lens culinaris.

Unlike the Peruvian potato, which the Bible’s framers didn’t know existed and thus garners no mention in the Book, lentils are featured in Genesis as being an extremely valuable foodstuff.  Esau, the first born son to Isaac and Rebekah, after returning from a hard day’s hunt, literally gives up his kingdom for a bowl of his wily brother Jacob’s lentils.  Either Esau did not care much for his birthright, or his brother made an exceptionally tasty potage.

By the 15th century lentils and other legumes seem to have fallen out of favor as Platina, the librarian of the Vatican and author of the first printed cookbook, “De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine” (On Proper Pleasure and Good Health,) opined that they produce black bile, gas, and have a deleterious effect on the libido.  While in exile from Italy in 1614, Giacomo Castelvetro wrote his marvelous “The Fruits, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy” to try and persuade the British of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.  “Like many other countries we also have lentils, one of the most, if not the most, unhealthy vegetables one can eat,” he noted.  “In general lentils are eaten only by the lowest of the low.” 

Eventually lentils were saved, to some degree, from disrepute by Pope Pius IX.   During his Papacy he personally suffered the dissolution of the Papal States and the establishment of a united Italy with Rome as its capital.  During these difficult years of the loss of his temporal power, supposedly Pius IX, echoing Esau, would often console himself with his favorite dish, a large bowl of lentils from the town of Onano. 

Although Onano is only about 8 miles from Sorano, because it is in the province of Lazio, which was once part of the Papal States, it had very different historical influences. Onano must have had its tumescent heyday, perhaps when lentils were in greater demand, but it is now a very languid place surrounded by junk yards and a few lentil fields.  Curiously Onano was named for another rather dubious figure in Genesis- Onan the self-defiler.  The story of Onan is a striking example of God’s rough justice. Judah arranged the marriage of Tamar to his son Er.   As written in the King James Bible, “and Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord;and the Lord slew him.”  Er’s brother Onan was then directed to marry Tamar and father her children.   Not a willing partner, Onan, “wasted his seed onto the ground,” giving rise to the term Onanism and the Church’s strictures against masturbation and contraception.  What Onan did “greatly offended the Lord, and the Lord took his life, too.”  One cannot help thinking that if Esau was able to swap his power  (thus becoming impotent) for a bowl of lentils and if, as Platina says, lentils dull the sex drive, Onan, too, might have been able to eat them to the point of impotence and thereby avoid his maker’s wrath.

Even up to only about 50 years ago traders from Onano would come to market in Sorano, their donkey pulled carts laden with wares and lentils.  Coming from the East, once outside Sorano they would then proceed by the old Etruscan path that passes directly below my garden, the Via della Cavarella, down into the valley of the Lente river, before proceeding up to town.  The Onanese had a reputation for being very poor, perhaps because, as there is no river at Onano, they would take the opportunity to stop and wash their clothes- and maybe even rinse their lentils-at the Lente’s edge.  

In Sorano nowadays there are various other types of lentils available in the food stores, including the larger green, and small red varieties coming from different Mediterranean countries, but my favorites for flavor and texture are the ones from Onano.