Stories from an Old Italian Farmhouse: Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage

When almost all of the cows we owned at the farm had been sold, and rabbits were the only animals left for the season, they all fell sick with a contagious sickness. In the stable of our farmhouse in the Marche, my family of farmers fought every day against an incomprehensible, uncompassionate and unpredictable destiny.
One day, Virgilio, my grandfather came home with a thurible he borrowed from the priest, in which he had placed a mixture of incense and medicinal herbs. He lit it up, and the strong scent that was so characteristic of Easter and Christmas started permeating the whole stable, the smoke coiling up in the darkness. He handed it over to me and said: go through all of the cages, and offer this blessed smoke to all the animals. Maybe it will help them heal.
I was just a kid and followed his orders without understanding much. I felt the evening lurk over the house, and saw the shades grow longer.
‘Grandpa, it’s dark.’
‘Why, can’t you see the light of the Spirit?’ he said. ‘You know what the incense stands for? It is the Spirit. It is God, that enters every nook, that impregnates every surface. The light of the Spirit is in us. Why are you afraid of the dark? Can’t you see the light? Where is it?’
The red ashes of the burning incense flickered in the thurible.
‘It’s in the middle…It’s inside.’
Virgilio smiled, his mustache curving along with the lips.
‘Well said. It’s inside…’

My grandparents did not talk much: they had no time for chatter.
I remember my grandmother, bent over the sewing machine: her round figure, lit by the light filtering from our thick walls, almost looked like a waning half moon.  She sewed, and the sound of the old Singer machine echoed around the room, sneaking amongst the prosciutto and salami that hung from the damp wooden ceiling. The cracks in the white walls, which were turning grey with time, seemed the perfect reflection of the wrinkles on her austere face.
But here came lunchtime! the food in the clay pots was cooking on the embers of the fire crackling in the brick chimney, bubbling away quietly. The joyous sound of the boiling food almost seemed to want to console the family for the humility of the ingredients within. There was cabbage, potatoes and legumes, which nourished every day the men who worked in the fields. There was not much, put the little we had was enough for everyone.

Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage - Stories from an old Italian Farmhouse.Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage - Stories from an old Italian Farmhouse.

Virgilio turned the little we had into a farming microcosm, small but functional: we made cheese, we tended the garden, the grapes and the olive trees. We had good San Giovese wine (even though our white wine was not always the best), and we had good extra virgin olive oil that tingled on your tongue – that’s how you know it still has tons of antioxidants. When February came, over twenty people of the family would gather to kill the pig. I made sure to hide during those days, as i could not stand the sight of the process.

I especially loved pasta and chickpeas: my grandma would pull out her pasta board and, together with my mother, they made the dough that would later be transformed into tagliatelle, quadrotti, maltagliati or strozzapreti. Virgilio always said that he married her because she was the best pasta maker in town. I learned from the best, didn’t I!
Pasta with chickpeas was also Virgilio’s favorite dish. We both thought: how can something made with such simple ingredients be so good? We cooked it in our blackened clay pot, which still smelled of pasta and legumes even when it was clean and empty.

‘You see, the earth can give us everything we need,’ he said, as he broke pieces of bread to scoop up the leftover sauce in the bottom of his dish. ‘The earth can give back ten times its value to those who take care of it.’

Virgilio’s faith was rock-solid. All the things that could possibly go wrong did not matter, he could find a way out of everything. There were times when I’d wake up in the middle of the night and, as I peeked into his room, I’d see him praying, kneeled in front go the crucifix, his arms wide open, his eyes in a sort of ecstatic gleam. He knew the gospel by heart, yet he never learned to read. He did the same when he was in church, in front of all the other people. He said he wanted to be bathed in the light of God. And they laughed at him, and they said to him: What kind of light could you possibly find? Nobody listens to the population.
‘The light is within, the light is within…’ he replied. ‘What foolish soul cannot see the light? Fools are those who turn their eyes and their hearts from such light!’

It was this faith that let him build up all that we owned, a little at a time. We lived our days in complete sync with the seasons and with the moon cycle: in the summer nights they sowed the fields, and in the deep of winter they worked during the least freezing hours. While the men were out, the women would bake bread in the stone oven, make cheese and soap, and do the laundry using ash to make the clothes whiter. In the evening, when they came back from the fields, the men would lay their swollen hands on the table and , after a hearty meal made with leftovers, would play cards amongst the mandarin peels and breadcrumbs.

After taking care of the dishes, the women would sit in the room next to the stable and, as they sewed in the candlelight, they’d tell stories to the kids and share gossip amongst themselves.

These simple memories are some of the fondest I have of my family of farmers. Our simple life in that farmhouse, and the moon calendar that my grandfather followed religiously (it is always best to cut your nails during a waning moon, did you know that?). I remember all the positive things he gave us, even though we owned very little.

One night, I had a dream.
Virgilio was walking up from the fields, holding a large loaf of bread. He took my hand, and, when we reached the top of the hilly countryside, he showed me an immense green field, set ablaze by the intense late afternoon sunlight. It was beautiful beyond every possible belief.
‘You see?’ he said. ‘This is life!’
And we are so lucky to grow it, to eat it, to hold it under our teeth! Our life! Do you realize how wonderful the synergy we have with these fields is? He said. This is life, and there is nothing wrong and nothing to be taken for granted here. It is pure life, it is the Spirit that that enters every nook, that impregnates every surface. Nurture it, and find nourishment in it.

Every now and then, I still think of what he said to me in that dream: We had nothing, yet everything we had seemed more than enough. We had to go pee in a hole in the ground in the backyard – can you even imagine that? Still, I remember how my mom, in the evening, would lay on the haystacks  in the back of the house with me in her arms, and sing me to sleep as the women of the house sewed and chatted.
And there are times when I want to scream this out loud, to go and tell every single person that crosses my path: that it is the time to feel once again the breath of nature on our necks, hasting us to awaken from our irresponsible slumber, and recognize her in all of her almighty glory. I want to shout out to the world that it is her gentle breath that makes our heart swell like a sail, and beats faster at the sight of that goddess that is visible, tangible and delicate.

The morning after that dream, I was woken up by a phone call.
‘Virgilio has passed,’ said my mom on the other end.
‘I know,’ I calmly answered.

———

Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage - Stories from an old Italian Farmhouse.Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage - Stories from an old Italian Farmhouse.Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage - Stories from an old Italian Farmhouse.

 

This is a true story. I wrote it imagining the point of view of my mom, who told me about my great grandparents many times. Even the dream is a thing that really happened! I was young when they were alive, but I remember them fondly. I hope you like the photos! they are from a real old museum-farmhouse that looks a lot like mine did a few years ago.

Pasta and Chickpeas has always been a staple in our household. I remember large clay pots of it bubbling away on the stove ever since my great-grandmother was alive, warming up the kitchen of every farmhouse shrouded in the misty days of winter. It is normally cooked with garlic, but because of the addition of cabbage here we are going to go for a sweeter flavor and only use onion. The tomato passata here is completely optional – skip it if you don’t have it.
What I like about this recipe is that, depending on what kind of pasta you make it with, you can make it more stew or soup-like, or more dry pasta-like. In this case, I am going to use a wonderful kind of pasta called caserecce, so I am going to go for a dry result. If you want to turn this into soup, use more stock and a short cut of pasta, like ditalini, quadratini, or maltagliati. You can even use tagliatelle! The choice is completely up to you.
Also, so sorry this dish does not look pretty at all. I challenge you to make this stuff look pretty! We all love it because it looks like a mess, so please bear with me.

There is one thing I would love to mention: The pasta I am using is made with an ancient variety of sicilian wheat, called Timilia. These ancient species of grains are still cultivated like hundreds of years ago, and are very natural and high quality. This kind of pasta is extremely flavorful, easy to digest and much easier to cook, as it does not turn to mush like industrial pasta. I will make a post talking about ancient grains in the future, as the grains controversy seems to be quite the topic amongst healthy foodies.

Cabbage Pasta & Ceci (Pasta with Chickpeas)
 
Serves 2
Author:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
Ingredients
  • 200g Chickpeas, cooked or canned
  • 120g Pasta of your choice (choose whole wheat or spelt)
  • ½ medium head of cabbage cabbage, shredded
  • a small onion (or half a medium one), finely chopped
  • 1 rosemary sprig, finely chopped
  • About 1 cup vegetable stock, or more (or water from the pasta)
  • EXTRA - ¼ cup tomato passata
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 2 generous tbsp olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil to finish.
Instructions
  1. First, take care of the chickpeas. If using canned, rinse them well under running water. If you are starting from dried chickpeas, soak them for 12 hours before hand, then cook them with a laurel leaf and 2 garlic cloves until tender (about 40-50 minutes), starting from fresh water.
  2. put the olive oil in the pot, heat it slightly and add the onion. Sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes, then add the chickpeas, rosemary, tomato passata and a generous pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 cup of stock, and let the chickpeas boil for 15-20 minutes. At this point take out ⅓ of the chickpeas, and mash or purée them in a blender.
  3. To the initial stir-fry, add the shredded cabbage. Stir, and let cook, half covered, until the cabbage is tender, about 30 minutes. If it dries out too much, add a splash more stock or some pasta from the water if it is towards the end.
  4. In the meantime, bring another pot of water to a boil. Cook the pasta, but drain it 3 minutes before it is supposed to be done, reserving a cup of the water.
  5. Pour back the puréed chickpeas into the pot, and add the pasta. Cook for 3 more minutes, until all the liquid is evaporated and the cabbage and chickpeas will have created a creamy consistency. Serve hot, with a little extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top.

Pasta & Chickpeas with Cabbage - Stories from an old Italian Farmhouse. 

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