A reader who I’ll call “Nancy T.” wrote me recently to tell me about a bread soup 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.
- 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 your bread soup immediately.
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 bread soup 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.
Frank that is so great that you researched Nancy's grandmother's zuppa. It looks so hearty and delicious. I love all kinds of soups, sopas and zuppa.
Many thanks, folks, for all your wonderful thoughts and comments!
@Pola: Indeed, the zuppa valdostana looks like a close relation to this one!
And special thanks, of course, to Nancy for introducing me (and now all of us) to this humble but beautiful dish.
Congratulations for your blog and your wonderful research about Italian recipes. One of our best luck (for we Italians, I mean) is being spread all over the world. And often Italians abroad are the best interpreters of our culture. Greetings from Roma!
I second what Deana/Lost Past said. Such an interesting post- love the context you've given to this dish. I am also quite intrigued with the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese and their support of gay and reproductive rights … I sure never thought I would agree with a Christian group on issues of social policy!!
Great post, Frank. You know how I love history. You are spot on about the bread soup… they did repurpose those trencher/bread plates that had soaked up meat juices… it became a nourishing soup.. adding cinnamon and sugar would have only been for the rich (the servants would have been skinned had they pinched some of their master's spices) but there might have been spices left over from the lord's dinner on the bread. That zuppa is great comfort food!
All those cheeses and foods of the Val D'Aosta are so hearty and delicious. Great background info too Frank.
Very nice! I am a big fan of dishes that show a deep respect for food, especially bread. Throwing away bread was never an option and creativity was put to good use in devising ways of giving old bread a new life. Interesting post, as usual.
Frank, you are a Maestro in the blogosphere! This is a keeper for days when the world is closing in and less is so much more. love it!
This sounds like a delicious and comforting dish! Very similar to a sopa!
Frank that soup sounds wonderful, Its a bit different than any other I have seen. Thanks so much for posting this great find, I can't wait to try it!
Wow, this is the epitome of comfort food…how wonderful~
I love this menu, especially the flavor of cinnamon and nutmeg makes this dish more wonderful, always up-to-date all the time !. Yuan
Have a look also at zuppa valdostana (e.g., http://www.ricettegolose.it/ricette.asp?Id=164). Similar to this (and to my turnip one) but with savoy cabbage…
BTW I disagree with the thing about zuppa having bread int it. To me zuppa is something with some sort of grain (like barely or farro).
Thank you, Frank, for your research and interest in this dish. It's one of those things that makes me feel enveloped in warmth and family. It's good to be able to share these recipes with others, but I am really happy to be able to pass them down to my children (my grandmother, who has been gone now some 15 years, taught her great-grandkids a little cooking, but not zuppa!).
as always, rich in warm goodness, coddled with informative greatness…. interesting and intrigued of the latter part, of the followers merging into the Presbyterian secular, something I will certainly pursue in following myself…
looks awesome……need to try it soon 🙂
I have to tell you that this recipe got to me. It will now be burned in my brain until I make it. Thanks alot!
Very similar to the panades of the Provence region. I love a good wet bread!
Thanks Frank! I learned a new italian recipe but most of all….this food leads more to such beautiful virtue of humility and poverty…… i call it “vero” food for the soul!! grazie!!!
What a great and hearty dish!