What is acquacotta?

What is acquacotta?

By
Emiko Davies
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743792117
Photographer
Emiko Davies; Lauren Bamford

There is a well-known European folktale known as ‘The Stone Soup’, or zuppa di sasso in Italy. I first heard it through my friend Giulia Scarpaleggia, who recounted it in the context of a Tuscan soup, known as acquacotta. As the story moves from one side of Europe to the other, it changes slightly, from country to country and storyteller to storyteller. Sometimes the moral emphasises the soup-maker’s ability to trick his host into giving him a free feed, and sometimes it highlights the sense of community and working together.

My favourite version is one my daughter has in a beautifully illustrated picture book by Anaïs Vaugelade, where the protagonist is depicted as an old, starving wolf, who approaches a village of wary but curious animals with a sack containing a stone. He asks the hen if he can make a stone soup over her fireplace. One by one the neighbouring animals suggest it might be better, more flavourful, with one of their favourite ingredients – a celery stalk, some leek, a zucchini (courgette). In the end, the animals pull up chairs around the fireplace with steaming bowls of delicious soup, wobbling glasses of wine and conversation.

It’s my favourite version because it is, to me, so much about what Italian food is all about: conviviality. And also a bit of that, ‘I like to put such and such ingredient in that dish’ or ‘My mother or grandmother always did this but she would put two cloves of garlic’, which so often influences how recipes are learned, passed on and cooked. The folktale’s stone soup actually exists in Tuscany – brodo di sasso or ‘rock broth’ is a soup from Livorno, where stones from the sea are placed in a pot of boiling water to give a hint of the flavour of the sea, even when you have nothing much else to put in it.

I think so many recipes born out of Tuscan cucina povera came about this way – from having very little and needing to feed the family with whatever is at hand. A piece of stale bread, some weeds from the field outside, some water and, with luck, an egg from the chicken coop. This is, essentially, the recipe for acquacotta. Like the folktale’s stone soup, there are many, many versions of acquacotta, changing depending on which town you are in, what you can scrounge around for and how hungry you are.

Acquacotta literally means ‘cooked water’ or, better, ‘cooked in water’ and it describes the basic process of the meal – boiling vegetables in water. It is arguably the most famous dish of the Maremma, a dish I like very much but also a concept that evokes so much more than just the dish itself.

An ancient soup, it was once a travelling meal for the many Maremman occupations that took people far from their homes – a meal that was thrown together outdoors, over a campfire, with a pot of boiling water, made by cowboys, shepherds or fishermen, wherever they happened to be. Along with the water, the other ingredients included some dried, stale bread (even bread that was specifically dried to be easily portable for travelling and keeping well), garlic and wild herbs and jagged-edged greens that were foraged from around the fields during the spring and autumn. Fishermen would add some small fish from their catch, the sort of thing that you couldn’t sell at the market. At home, onions, potatoes or tomatoes from the vegetable patch were added.

Sometimes it’s more solid and chunky, letting the bread soak up any liquid. In other places it’s a watery broth, with plenty of vegetables floating through it. Often, an egg for each person is cracked into the simmering soup to poach, or they are beaten together with a handful of pecorino cheese and poured over the top of the bubbling soup. The addition of eggs in acquacotta, something that makes it unique among Tuscan soups, is an ancient one, according to Florentine gastronome Paolo Petroni in his cookbook, Il Grande Libro della Vera Cucina Toscana (1996).

In Cucina Maremmana (1991) Aldo Santini wrote, ‘In Maremma tutto si assomiglia e niente si ripete’ (In Maremma, everything is similar but nothing is repeated.) He was referring to the preparation of wild boar but it’s relevant for acquacotta, too. Every town has its own version and each is decidedly different from the other, even though they all share the same name and the same story.

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