Tongue-Tied in Italy
by Lynda Salter Chenoweth
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ONE OF THE JOYS of foreign travel for me is the opportunity to roam local farmers markets and food shops in search of seasonal products and then return to a well-equipped apartment to cook what’s been purchased.
My favorite green-grocers in Cortona, Italy, are Roberto and Nunciantina, a married couple who have a frutta e verdura shop just off the Piazza della Republica. I have shopped in their store frequently over the years, and have delighted in Nunciantina’s unflagging determination to improve my Italian vocabulary and pronunciation.
On one memorable occasion, I entered the store on a rainy winter’s day in search of ingredients for a soup I was planning for dinner that night. Nunciantina greeted me with a smile and waited with a quizzical look for me to utter (badly) what I wanted.
“Ha il ferro, Nunciantina?” I asked. She stared at me in disbelief. “Ferro?” “Si,” I said, “per suppa.”
She walked over to some metal display shelves in the store and started to shake them. “Questo e? ferro!!” she exclaimed in exasperation, pointing out that I had asked for iron. She waited for my next assault on the Italian language. I had obvi- ously mispronounced what I wanted, so tried another approach. “Seme?” I asked, hoping that the word “seed” would indicate I was after a vegetable product rather than a mineral.“Ah!” she exclaimed,“farro. Si, si.” Shaking her head in amazement, she produced the quarter kilo of farro I requested and waved me out the door.
Farro, also known as emmer wheat, is considered by some to be the second wheat to be domestically cultivated. Until early Roman times, farro was the most important cultivated form of wheat in the Near East, Africa, and Europe. (The first cultivated wheat seems to have been einkorn wheat, grown in cooler climates such as northern France and the southern Alps.) Farro was used in ancient times to prepare porridge and a form of polenta. It was too hard to be ground into fine flour so was cracked to form a kind of bulgar. Today, farro has regained popularity as a healthy, essential ingredient in soups. (Try it instead of pasta or rice in a broth-based soup with tomatoes, saute?ed onions, and cavolo nero – the dark kale to be found in our farmers markets.) It can also be cooked like couscous for cold salads, side dishes and, pre-soaked, as a substitute for rice in a risotto dish. In Italy, the latter is called “farrotto.”
For a taste of farro, try these Farrotto and Eggplant Stacks with Summer Pesto and Salsa Fresca from Nourish Network.