I never thought I would learn to love old, stale, bread. I never thought I’d get excited about a rumpled paper bag, a brown one that we keep in the basket under the work table to collect the bread orphans, the neglected and badly cut slices, the crusty ends of loaves which Italians call i culi ( the arses !) But I have and I do.
It is because of Vincenzo, the man is as obsessed with using up every slice, crust and fragment of bread as he is with its daily acquisition and the bit of bread balanced on the edge of his plate at every meal. If he doesn’t finish his piece of bread at a meal, it goes in the paper bag. His paternal grandparents had a forno (oven, bakery) in Messina in Sicily. His grandmother Lila in particular, worked very hard and the most extraordinary hours to keep – quite literally – bread on many tables. Bread, was a serious matter and I suppose Vincenzo couldn’t help but grow up knowing the value and importance of it. Bread was never wasted in his family, fresh daily bread may have been a given, but so was the thrifty use of every scrap.
He calls me a wasteful English barbarian by the way.
Vincenzo has brought some of this thrift into our – increasingly nightmarish and desperately in need of attention – kitchen. In summer we often make panzanella, we soak the leftover bread in water, squeeze it dry, tear it into pieces and then toss it with very red ripe tomatoes, onion, basil, a little vinegar and lots of peppery olive oil. We sometimes make Pappa al pomodoro or pancotto both comforting and delicious soft paps of tomatoes, stale bread maybe onion or herbs which have been simmered together until they form a soft creamy mass. We often make breadcrumbs for liberal sprinkling on whatever and then in Autumn and winter we toast slices of stale bread, tear them and put them in the bottom of a shallow bowl and ladle over Ribollita.
Ribollita is a Tuscan speciality, it means reboiled. This hearty soup-stew – of which there are as many versions and variations as there are cooks – is thought to have been traditionally made and eaten on Saturday, a way of using up the left-over white beans from Friday, a lean day. The beans were recooked (hence the ribollita) with lots of onion, often cavolo nero (black cabbage) and vegetables, then served over slices of toasted stale bread (pane raffermo) Each bowlful was then doused very generously with bright green, rich, peppery, Tuscan olive oil.
Ribollita is still made in much the same way today, but now that it is less common to make it out of necessity with the leftovers from religious fast days, the name ribollita is more likely to refer to the fact that this soup – like most minestrone – is unquestionably better when it is made in advance, left to cool, preferably overnight, and then ribollita or reboiled and reheated.
This is a practical, down to earth soup to both make and eat. First a soffritto of onion, carrot, celery and olive oil, then some diced potatoes, a few tomatoes, thyme, your soaked white beans, an uncontrollable little mountain of cavolo nero which withers down obligingly, water, salt. You bring the pan to the boil and lower the heat to a slow simmer for at least two hours, remove, taste, season, taste.
Now a nice long rest, preferably overnight so the flavours can mature and develop and the soup can thicken. When it’s time you gently reheat it and then ladle the soup over toasted stale bread (rubbed with garlic if you like), anoint with lots of extra virgin olive oil a grind of black pepper. Then you wait like a Tuscan for about 5 even 10 minutes before you eats so the bread soaks up the broth, swells under the thick dense soup and becomes so thick you can stand your spoon up in it.
Then you eat, thrifty and delicious I’d say.
A note about the kale – I do hope you can find it, I don’t want to seem annoyingly exclusive about Italian ingredients. If you can’t, you can make a really nice ribollita with ordinary kale or savoy cabbage, but I should say there is nothing like the deep, toothsome, slightly peppery flavour of its blue-black cousin cavolo nero (black cabbage) for this particular soup.
Oh, one more thing, a final note about the bread, it should be stale, two or three or four days old, depending on the type of bread. Italians call stale toasted bread pane raffermo which does not have the negative connotations of our word stale. Pane raffermo means firmed up, hardened, matured which makes the bread ideal for soaking up broth whilst keeping its shape and texture. Good stale bread from comes good bread, bread with texture, flavour and body. Poor quality bread is even poorer stale and will be even nastier and a tragic soggy, gluey, mess under this serious soup.
Umm goodness, I am so long-winded sometimes, you get the picture I hope.
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- onion, peeled and finely diced
- a large carrot, peeled and finely diced
- a stick of celery, finely diced
- 3 whole plum tomatoes, fresh or canned.
- 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 medium potatoes. peeled and coarsely diced
- 500g cavolo nero, shredded
- 160g dried white beans like cannelini soaked overnight and drained
- 8 slices or crusts of stale country bread with a firm crust and dense crumb
- salt and pepper
In a large heavy based pan (one with at 4 liter capacity is ideal) warm the olive oil over a medium heat and then add the diced onion, celery and carrot and cook gently for about 15 minutes until they are very soft and translucent and floppy.
Add the potatoes to the pan, stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and the thyme, stir and cook for another couple of minutes.
Add the beans, stir and then add the vast pile of cavolo nero and try to stir to coat (The cavolo will feel rather unmanageable at this point, the sheer bouncy volume of it, try to turn as best you can and rest assured it will wither down soon)
Pour in 2 litres/ 3 1/2 pints of water, season with salt and then bring the pan to the boil, stirring and turning occasionally. Once the pan has reached a lively boil. turn the heat down to low, cover the pan and leave to simmer for two hours.
Remove from the heat, taste season and leave to sit for at least 6 hours or better, over night.
Once you are ready to serve gently reheat the soup in the pan. Toast the bread lightly, rub it with garlic if you like and then you have two options; You can just lay slice of bread into the bottom of an individual serving bowl and ladle over the soup, dribble with more oil and serve just so; You can do as our friends do in Tuscany. You set the oven to 180°/350F, Lay the slices crusts of toasted bread at the bottom of a large earthenware dish and the pour over the soup. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes then serve into individual bowls making sure everyone gets some of the bread at the bottom, dribble with more extra virgin olive oil, a grind of black pepper and freshly grated parmesan..
You often find ribollita served tepid or just warm here in Italy as the flavours are more pronounced that way.