One of the things that make Italian cuisine so fascinating is its vast variety of flavors and cooking styles. Going from one region of Italy to another, in culinary terms (and not only) is something like going from one country to another—not surprising, I suppose, if you consider that the unification of Italy is only 150 years old and, in some senses, is still a work in progress. And ever since the barbarian invasions of late antiquity, Italy has been the object of repeated invasions and foreign domination, along with the more peaceful interactions of commerce, with each foreign group bringing its culinary traditions to the table, so to speak. Think of the French influences in the cooking of val d’Aosta or the Moorish ones in Sicily.
The northeastern part of Italy, from Milan all the way to the northeastern borders with Austria and Slovenia, was once part of the Austrian Empire. Nowhere is the influence of this history felt more strongly than in the city of Trieste, which today sits on a small tongue of Italian territory reaching out eastwards from the Veneto around along the shores of a part of the Adriatic called, appropriately enough, the Gulf of Trieste.
This post is about the best known and most emblematic dish of Trieste, la jota triestina—a hearty soup of sauerkraut, beans, potato and pork that veritably sings the flavors and textures of the cooking of Mitteleuropa. There are many versions of this dish. Here is one that appeals to me and, by omitting some harder to find ingredients, is practical for cooks in the US and elsewhere outside Trieste. Although not hard to make, ideally it requires a number of steps, and you’ll need three days to make the dish: one for soaking the beans, one to make the soup and one to ‘rest’ before you eat it.
Makes enough for 8 or more people
For the beans:
- 500g (1 lb.) dried beans (see Notes), soaked overnight
- 250g (1/2 lb.) potatoes, cubed
- A bay leaf
- Salt, q.b.
For the sauerkraut:
- 500g (1 lb.) sauerkraut, rinsed
- 1/2 medium sized onion, minced
- 250g (1/2 lb.) slab bacon (pancetta affumicata), cut into cubes
- A pinch of caraway seeds
- Salt, q.b.
For the pestà or brown roux:
- Oil or lard or minced salt pork
- 1 clove of garlic, slightly crushed
- 2 spoonfuls of flour
Step 1: Soak the beans: Soak the beans in abundant water overnight. (If you’re pressed for time, you can use the ‘quick soak’ method—see Notes below.)
Step 2: Cook the beans and potatoes: The next day, in a large pot, simmer them with water to cover them amply with a bay leaf for an hour, or until tender. After about 30 minutes, add the potatoes to cook along with the beans. And when the beans are just about cooked, season them with salt.
Step 3: Cook the bacon and sauerkraut: After you have the beans on the simmer, you can turn to the sauerkraut. Rinse it well and, if like me you like your sauerkraut rather mild, let is soak for a few minutes in water. Now gently sauté the bacon in oil until it begins to render its fat, not letting it brown too much. Then add the onion and let it continue to sauté until the onion is translucent. Drain the sauerkraut, rinse it once more and then, squeezing handfuls of it with your hands, add it to the bacon and onion soffritto. Mix well, sprinkle with caraway seeds and a bit of salt, then add enough water to almost cover the sauerkraut. Cover and let simmer over very gentle heat until the water has almost evaporated. It should be done at about the same time as the beans.
Step 4: Assemble and simmer: Take one or two ladlefuls of the beans and potatoes and pass them through a food mill back into the pot. Then add the sauerkraut and mix everything together well. Simmer it all, over the gentlest possible heat, for another 30-60 minutes to let the flavors meld. (Recipes vary enormously on how long this final simmer should take—see Notes.) Make sure to stir from time to time to avoid scorching the by-now thick mixture. Add water to loosen the mixture to your taste.
Step 5: Add the pestà: About 15 minutes before the final simmer is over, sauté the garlic in the oil (or lard) until just lightly golden brown, then discard it. Add the flour to the oil and let it cook until it turns a light brown as well. Then add this mixture to the soup pot and mix well. (NB: If using minced salt pork, cook it first until the fat is well rendered before proceeding.)
Step 6: Resting: Although la jota can be eaten right away, it is much better when made ahead and reheated. It you have time, eat it the next day. But it benefits from even a few hours’ rest, if you make it in the morning for lunch or supper.
Borlotti are the classic beans for this dish. In the US, you could also use cranberry beans or even good old pinto beans, which are far easier to find. White beans can be used in a pinch, although they are not typical. I would avoid ked kidney beans, which have a very strong and uncharacteristic flavor. If you can find fresh beans, that would be fantastic—in which case skip Step 1 of course—but dried beans are really the most common. You may be tempted to use canned beans to save time. I actually use canned beans all the time, but not for this dish: the ‘liquor’ that comes from simmering the beans is an important part of the flavor profile. (And you definitely don’t want to use the liquid from your canned beans.) But if you want to save some time, you can use the ‘quick soak’ method: place the beans in a large pot, cover them amply with water and bring the beans to the boil. Immediately turn off the flame and cover the pot. After an hour, the beans will have softened in a way similar to having soaked them in cold water overnight.
Like so many traditional dishes, here are many variations, mostly having to do with the ingredients or the way in which the ingredients are put together. Some recipes call for cooking the potatoes in a separate pot, then passing them through a food mill or cubing them and adding them to the already cooked beans. In other recipes, the bacon is added to simmer with the beans rather than with the sauerkraut. And some recipes have you add the pestà to the sauerkraut (or vice versa) before it is all added to the soup pot. The pestà can also be added to the pot along with the sauerkraut at the beginning of its final simmer rather than towards the end. I rather doubt that these variations make an enormous difference is the final result, but it would be fun to experiment.
One variation that does make a big difference: I have seen recipes that call for adding the sauerkraut, without prior rinsing or cooking, directly into the soup pot right before serving. If you like sour tastes, this is your ticket. Personally, I don’t care for overly sour dishes, especially hot ones, which is why I not only rinse, but soak my sauerkraut before braising it. (The soaking is my personal variation by the way—you won’t find that in the traditional recipes.) Some recipes call for much less potato than I’ve suggested here.
You can make the jota triestina thicker and thinner, smoother or more chunky, by adjusting the amount of water and/or puréeing more or less of the beans and potatoes, or none at all. One variation calls for adding a few spoonfuls of polenta for the final simmer, which thickens the soup even more, although I find the soup is quite thick enough without polenta, especially if you mill the potatoes and beans.
But perhaps the most important variations have to do with the pork: This recipe calls for bacon, which is easy to find in the US and elsewhere. You really should use slab bacon—ie, bacon in a big chunk that you can cut into cubes. It is getting harder and harder to find slab bacon in supermarkets, but if you have an Eastern European food store in your area you should be able to find quite a variety of different bacons that they will sell you in a single chunk. In a pinch, of course, good-quality pre-sliced bacon will also do the trick.
Besides bacon, traditional recipes call for other cuts of cured or fresh pork to be added to cook along with the beans. The most characteristic perhaps is pork rind, which provides a pleasantly unctuous texture to the soup. I haven’t included it in the master recipe above because it is so hard to find these days, but if you can find it, I’d recommend using it. You will need to parboil it and cut it into strips or cubes, as described in our post on fagioli con le cotiche, before using it. Other cuts of pork include cubes of pork shoulder or pork ribs.
You can also make jota triestina entirely without meat if you like, a nice variation for vegetarians or those observing the Lenten fast. Just omit the meat but otherwise you proceed exactly as indicated in the recipe. You may need to season the soup a bit more aggressively.
Trieste is a city with a fascinating history. It was Austrian for much of its history, starting in 1382 when it petitioned to join Austrian domains for protection against the Venetians to the west, although until the 17th century it enjoyed a measure of autonomy. It became an important trading port for the Austrian and then Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was briefly annexed to France during the Napoleonic era. It became part of Italy only quite recently, after the First World War, in 1920. It remains Italian today, although its hinterland, which included the Istrian peninsula (where celebrity chef Lydia Bastianich comes from) was ceded to Yugoslavia after the Second World War and is part of Slovenia and Croatia today.
This complex history has made for an interesting local culture that mixes Germanic with Slavic and Italian influences. You can see it in the architecture, in the coffeeshops reminiscent of those of Vienna and, of course, in the local cuisine. One of my favorite food blogs, La voglia matta (“Crazy Desire”) is written by a gal named Chiara from Trieste. If you can read Italian, do check out her version of la jota triestina (made with fresh sausages and pork ribs) and other dishes from here native city there.