Italian Soups: The Difference Between Zuppa and Minestra
Time has erased the class distinctions between the two categories of Italian soups, zuppa and minestra , but their respective names and characteristics reflect their markedly contrasting pedigrees.
What is Minestra?
Minestra predates zuppa by a good few centuries. Derived from the Latin ministrare , meaning "to administer", the word reflects the fact that minestra was served out from a central bowl or pot by the figure of authority in the household. Minestra was traditionally the principal - and for the poor, the only - course of the meal.
Today, it is a blanket term referring to a first course of vegetables, legumes, pasta or rice cooked in a stock. Risotti and pasta dishes such as spaghetti alla vongole are sometimes referred to as minestre asciutte or "dry" minestre.
Minestrone is only one of many minestra soups. Regional variations abound but a minestrone must always include a "thickening vegetable" such as fresh or dried beans or other legumes, potatotes, pumpkin or squash. It must also include pasta or rice.
As a soup, it is exceptional in that it is delightful at various temperatures from hot to tepid to cold (though not straight out of the fridge), making it a soup for all seasons.
What is Zuppa?
Zuppa refers to a broth which, with a few exceptions, has slices of bread in it but never rice or pasta. The Italian word - along with the French soupe , Portuguese and Spanish sopa and German suppe - derives from the Gothic suppa , meaning "soaked bread".
That slice of bread encapsulates the less salubrious origins of this soup. In medieval times, the plates on the tables of the nobility took the form of trenchers of sliced bread. These "plates", which ended up saturated with the juices of meats and other foods placed on them, were subsequently cooked by the servants, in water or stock, for their own meal.
Given its beginnings essentially as cooked dishwater, zuppa was obviously never seen on the tables of the rich. Not even the now prized sumptuous seafood extravaganza of zuppa di pesce (literally "fish soup", although shellfish is often included) made an appearance. This zuppa was originally fishermen's fare, made from the part of the catch not considered commercially valuable and thus not destined for the markets. Tomatoes, now a common ingredient, entered the equation only in the 18th century.
With the revival of interest in traditional peasant foods, the humble zuppa has achieved respectability. There are myriad regional zuppe and some have not only acquired special names but have been elevated to the status of venerated classics in Italian cuisine worthy of restaurant tables. Examples include:
- the Tuscan ribollita (literally "re-boiled"), an almost solid soup of beans, black cabbage (cavolo nero ) along with the intensely green cabbage called cavolo verza . This is always made a day or two before being eaten to allow the flavours to meld. It stands up extremely well to reheating and a great one to make in bulk for freezing.
- the Livornese cacciucco , a seafood soup spiked with generous amounts of garlic and tiny, dried red chillies.
A Classic Italian Zuppa
True Sicilian asparagus zuppa uses wild asparagus, which is more intensely flavoured than the cultivated variety and slightly bitter. This feral form is available in markets in Europe but near impossible to find in shops in Australia. I have occasionally seen small quantities of it at my greengrocer - imported from France and with an eye-watering price tag! I am told that feral asparagus can be found along country railway tracks, these being the naturalised offspring of seeds scattered by post-war 2 Italian immigrants but the exactly locations are well-kept secrets!
Although the following recipe is a tame and non-traditional rendition of this classic Sicilian zuppa in that it uses cultivated asparagus, it's still delicious. You must use gutsy, rustic, Italian-style bread, not the supermarket cotton-wool apologies for bread. The former will hold its structure and chewy texture despite the soaking. The latter turns into soggy cotton wool - hardly an appetising proposition!
Recipe: ZUPPA DI ASPARAGI
(Serves 6 - 8)
1.5 kg asparagus
Olive oil for frying & brushing bread
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced finely
1.5 litres veal or chicken stock
6 - 8 slices day-old bread
4 x 60 g eggs
50 g freshly grated pecorino cheese*
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Trim asparagus spears to lengths of about 10 cm from the tip and cut these truncated spears into 1.5 cm long pieces. (The leftover, de-headed stems can be used in stir-fries or simmered for about half an hour with the stock for the soup to intensify the asparagus flavour. Strain the stems from the stock before using for the soup.)
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a deep, heavy casserole over moderate heat. Add garlic and asparagus pieces and fry until they just start to colour. Add stock and bring the soup to the boil.
Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. Brush the bread slices with olive oil. Fry them until golden brown on both sides. Drain fried bread on kitchen paper set on a rack.
When the soup comes to the boil, beat the eggs together with the pecorino. Add egg mixture to the soup. Stir gently and allow the soup to simmer for a few minutes or until the egg mixture coagulates. Remove from heat immediately. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Place a slice or two of fried bread in each bowl and ladle the soup over. Serve immediately whilst it is still piping hot.
*Note: Pecorino, an ewe's milk cheese, has as many variations as there are regions in Italy. Ideally, this should be made with Pecorino Siciliano. I use Pecorino Sardo (from Sardinia) in the absence of the Sicilian one.