A reader who I’ll call “Nancy T.” wrote me recently to tell me about a dish called zuppa that her Piedmontese grandmother used to make. The word is one of several in Italian that mean ‘soup’ (see our Glossary for details). A zuppa is rustic soup, typically the kind that you are meant to have with bread, either dunk into it while you eat like the Neapolitan zuppa di pesce or laid at the bottom of your bowl before the soup is ladled on top like the Tuscan zuppa di porri. Nancy’s grandmother’s zuppa, on the other hand, is an example of the medieval practice of actually making zuppa out of leftover bread. In her zuppa, the slices of old bread are sautéed in butter and simmered with enough broth to cover and soften the bread while it cooks until it reaches the consistency of a pudding, reminiscent of the Tuscan pappa al pomodoro without the tomato.
Nancy asked if I had ever heard of her grandmother’s zuppa. I hadn’t but the recipe intrigued me—and it also sounded delicious! After a bit of digging, I found what I think is the traditional Piedmontese recipe for her grandmother’s dish. The full name is zuppa dei valdesi, also known in the local dialect as supa barbetta, and it comes from the valli valdesi, an area consisting of three valleys near Torino. The dish is a typical example of cucina povera, showing how, with a little imagination, the humblest of ingredients can be turned into exquisite eating.
Ingredients (for 4-6 people)
500g (1/2 lb.) stale bread or grissini
100g (3-1/2 oz.) grated cheese (see Notes)
100g (1/2 cup) butter (or more, to taste)
1 liter (4 cups) chicken (or vegetable) broth, or as much as you need.
Nutmeg, cloves and/or cinnamon, to taste
Salt, if needed
Break up the old bread (or grissini) into pieces. Sauté them gently in half the butter until lightly brown on all sides. Season with one or more of the spices, mixing a few times to ensure that the bread is evenly coated, then add enough broth to cover. Simmer the bread in the broth, covered, for about 15-20 minutes, or until the bread has softened and the broth has been completed absorbed by the bread. (You should add a bit more broth if needed to keep the bread moist.)
When the bread is done simmering, taste it and adjust for seasoning. Top with the grated cheese and the other half of the butter, which you will have melted separately.
You can serve your zuppa just like this, but for extra flavor, put the zuppa in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) for about 10 minutes until golden brown on top. Or just pass it under a broiler for a few minutes. Serve immediately.
NOTES: Now here is the way that Nancy describes her grandmother’s zuppa:
For us, typically after bagna cauda, when we have leftover bread, and it gets a little dry, we make this dish (unless, of course, we wait too long and the bread is like a brick). I slice the loaves into about 1″ slices. Then, in a large pan, add “a nice piece of butter”, as my grandmother would say. 3-4 Tablespoons. After the butter melts, the bread gets arranged, and it browns in the butter. It’s turned over, adding more butter, of course. Meanwhile, I’ve got about 6-8 cups of chicken broth heating up in a pot behind the bread pan. When the bread’s been turned and had a chance to brown a little, I start adding the broth, gradually. Kind of like risotto. When about half of the broth is absorbed, the bread gets turned again, and more broth added. In the end, I usually flip them once more.
The recipe today is usually a bit more upscale, made with those ubiquitous bread sticks called grissini, but Nancy T’.’s grandmother’s version using stale bread is actually how the soup was originally made. In the old days, they often layered the bread with Savoy cabbage and let it simmer slowly for a few hours by the fire. There are also recipes that call for some sautéed onion. One rather extravagant version calls for cured pork and various herbs (bay leaf, rosemary, sage) interspersed between the layers of cabbage and bread.
The cheese would typically be Toma, a semi-hard cow’s milk Piedmontese (and French) cheese, but if you can’t find it, parmesan or grana padano would do. Or you could go for an Alpine cheese such as fontina, gruyère or Emmenthal.
Nancy recommends washing down this dish with some good, full-bodied red wine, and I would, too. It may be simple but—especially if you are generous with the cheese and butter—it is quite hearty.
There is little doubt that this dish is quite ancient in its origins. According to Anne del Conte in The Gastronomy of Italy:
Of all foods, zuppa is the most obvious inheritance from the feudal system centered on the castle. The lords and ladies ate what was considered noble food. The servants made use of the leftovers from the high table, which included large slices of bread that had been used instead of plates to hold meat, fish and other food, and to these they added herbs, wild plants and water, the result being cooked at length.
The zuppe of the 15th and 16th centuries were very thick, made with toasted bread layered with other ingredients, often cheese, sugar and spices, and then placed in the oven.
The valdesi, by the way, were the followers of a religious movement known as valdismo that began in the 12th century. It preached the virtue of humility and poverty, much like the Franciscans in Umbria who came shortly after them, and I suppose this ‘poor’ soup reflects those values. Unlike the Franciscans, however, they eventually broke with the Catholic Church. The Chiesa Evangelica Valdese still exists today and have a large place of worship in Rome among other places. They are known for their progressive social views, promoting, among other things, gay and reproductive rights, stem-cell research, the right to die and secular government. William Paca, one of the signers of the US Declaration of Independence, belonged to the movement. The US branch of the movement merged into the Presbyterian Church in the late 19th century.