Today’s recipe was made from gifts: a packet of vacuum-sealed chestnuts I was given to taste, a bundle of sage from an friend’s garden in Camden brought back to Rome in my rucksack, and a bag of farro from the best wine merchant in Rome, Antonio, who got it from Pacina in Castelnuovo Beradenga in Tuscany, where it grows abundantly.
An early form of wheat, and sometimes called emmer wheat (not to be confused with spelt, which is also wheat, but a different genetic variation), farro was a staple grain in early Roman times thanks to its transportability, high protein content, vitamins and slow release of energy.
Roman soldiers marched, built and fought on farro, I tell my legionnaire- and gladiator-fixated son, who doesn’t look keen, pushing away the “funny rice”. Looking like a cross between a caraway seed and grape pip when dry, farro does look rather like plump and sturdy brown rice when cooked. It has a mild, nutty taste, and it is this inherent nuttiness that some people dislike – the fact that, even when it is cooked until properly tender, you really have to chew farro … which is the very thing I like about it.
The American food writer Molly O’Neill calls farro “a stalwart little soldier” – appropriate when you consider its history. I think the soldier analogy is especially true in summer when, unlike other grains, farro is robust, hardworking and patient, holding its own against juicy ingredients.
I like to mix cooked farro with tomato, cucumber, red onion, olives, capers and tuna, maybe egg, alternatively lentils, orange zest and lots of chopped mint.
In winter, farro finds good partners in lentils and borlotti beans (Giorgio Locatelli has a brilliant recipe for this). Also, because farro contains a creamy and binding starch similar to the one found in arborio rice, it can be cooked as you would arborio in risotto for a farrotto, mushroom being a particularly good partner here. It also pairs well with pumpkin, chestnut and sage for this week’s recipe, a November soup.
I have noticed quite a few farro and pumpkin soup recipes that call for chicken or vegetable stock, which strikes me as completely unnecessary. If anything, the worry is too much flavour, especially the sweetness of both the pumpkin and chestnuts, which is why celery and sage are so important.
Perhaps scatter with some parmesan to finish or, as suits many soups at this time of year, when the days slip off at 5pm without so much as a goodbye, scatter a few red chilli flakes on top of your bowlful – just enough heat to make your nose twitch and throat tingle.
Farro, pumpkin and chestnut soup
Prep 15 min
Cook 55 min
100g peeled chestnuts, crumbled
1 white onion, peeled and diced
6 tbsp olive oil
1 slick of celery, diced
Salt and black pepper
A few leaves of sage
600g pumpkin or butternut flesh, diced
1 small glass dry white wine
200g farro, polished and cracked
If you are roasting them yourself, score the chestnuts across the curved side, put on a baking tray and bake at 180C/160C fan/350F/gas 4 for 20 minutes, until the skins have pulled back from the cuts and the nuts have softened. Wrap the chestnuts in a tea towel for 10 minutes to steam, which makes them easier to peel, then peel and crumble them.
In a large heavy-based pan, warm the olive oil and fry the onion, celery and a pinch of salt until soft and translucent. Add the sage and pumpkin and stir, then add the white wine.
Add the farro, then cover with 1.5 litres of water, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 35-40 minutes, adding the crumbled chestnuts in the last 15 minutes. The soup is ready when the pumpkin is tender and farro cooked, but still with a nutty bite. Add more salt and black pepper as needed.