I have a Brazilian friend who once said to me that: Soup is for poor people. I must have looked stunned so he repeated it in a different way:
Only poor people eat soup.
Especially because I come from an Italian background, I do understand what he is saying. Cucina Povera (poor cooking) is the Italian term for Peasant Cookery.
Soups were the poor dishes of the peasant tradition made from available and inexpensive ingredients. In the kitchen, nothing is thrown away is what we are also adhering to today. And soups have definitely made a comeback.
Poor people did eat soup because they may have not been able to afford to eat anything else or did not have access to other ingredients. Soups were made with what was once considered the poorest of ingredients – Fare qualcosa fuori di niente – Making something out of nothing.
The stock of supplies varied according to climate and conditions.
The fact that every crop is of short duration promotes a spirit of making the best of it while it lasts and conserving a part of it for future use.
Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray.
The contadini (peasants on the land) may have slaughtered and sold their meat but the bits that had no value and couldn’t be sold may have been added to what other ingredients went into the soup: seasonal vegetables from the garden, wild herbs, or once again, other produc no one wanted to buy: grains and pulses, where possible, were added and these were very nutritious.
There are many soups that have old bread added for sustenance and as a thickener and also as a way to follow the motto: In the kitchen, nothing is thrown away. And in these soups, not just bread, but leftovers also contributed to the good flavours. The Tuscan soup Ribollita (re-boiled) is a good example.
There are also many regional recipes for fish soups from the coastal areas of Italy. These were made from what was usually superfluous or discarded fish. Many of the famous Italian fish soups come from peasant stock – both because they originated as peasant cuisine and because fish was simmered to make stock. The transaction may also have been through barter or exchange. Whatever else was available was added. These simple soups were the forebears of the various regional Zuppe di Pesce, now made with expensive fish, but not always.
The limitations imposed by a single pot, a single heat source, local produce, and little or no access to imports are all characteristic of peasant cooking and give it a particular identity.
European Peasant Cooking, Elisabeth Laud
Practical rather than economic factors may also have contributed to what and how food was cooked – the number and size of pots and the heat source were likely to be very limited.
In Italy, Peasant Cooking of course, was not just soup and one could wax lyrical at length on about Italian regional pasta, polenta, rice dishes, and even produce made with chestnut flour or potatoes as food to feed the poor.
I grew up in a household that supped on many a Zuppe and Ministre. Maybe my Brazilian friend did not. Soup is a very significant part of Italian cuisine.There was no stigma attached.
You may have wondered why Italians use the word Zuppa…as in Zuppa di Pesce.. and Minestra… as in Minestra di verdure (vegetable soup).
A zuppa is a soup or broth that is served over slices of bread to soak up (inzuppare) the liquid. Sometimes toast or croutons are floated on the surface.
The Oxford Companion of Italian food, Gillian Riley.
Gillian Riley doesn’t really give an explanation for Minestra, but other sources say that a Zuppa never has rice or pasta. This implies that a Minestra does. Pureed vegetable soups are also classed as a Zuppa.
The Minestra, therefore, could imply “a thicker soup” with rice or pasta … or polenta or some other cereal as a thickener.
And something that may confuse you even further: A Minestrone is a big soup, a hearty one, and implied by the ending one, and if you see the word Minestrina, the ina implies little soup, a light one. Usually a Minestrina is fed to babies or young children, or sick people. It is never heavy.
I consulted a number of resources and this book: Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata della Gostronamia. It is written in Italian and therefore it is probably not surprising that it has more clarification about Zuppa and Minestra.
According to many scholars, the term Zuppa derives from the Celtic and means “slice of bread “
It goes on to say that since the Middle Ages they have been seen as a food of the people, because they do not contain meat. Indeed, the nobles often replaced the dishes with large slices of bread on which they placed the accompaniment. The leftovers of the loaves were given to the servants who put them to cook in pots with vegetables and cereals.
Derived from the Latin ministrare, meaning “to administer”, the word perhaps reflects the fact that Minestra was served out from a central bowl or pot by the figure of authority in the household.
I like this quote from this book; it is what I think:
Ma benché sia così radicata nella tradizione italiana oggi non è affatto semplice definire che cosa sia esattamente una minestra.
‘But although it (minestra and zuppa) are so rooted in the Italian tradition, today it is not at all easy to define what exactly a soup is’.
And there is so much more to discuss like broth and wet pasta dishes that are neither soup or Pasta Asciutta – dry pasta dishes. There is Pappa as in Pappa al Pomodoro that is a pureed tomato soup thickened with bread! Pappa means Pap.
I love the Italian language!
ZUPPA DI PESCE e VERDURA (Fish and Vegetable Soup)
Because of my Italian background, if I say ‘fish soup’ I usually think of recipes like those from countries around the Mediterranean like Zuppa di Pesce (Italy), Zarzuela (Spain), Bouillabaisse (France), Kakavia (Greece) or maybe Aljotta (Malta). Some soups are served with bread, others with croutons, some add extra flavour by adding a soffritto, rouille or aioli – which all have garlic as the essential ingredient. There are many local variations to the recipes in each of these countries and the names may differ, but all these soups are really like chunky fish stews.
This fish soup recipe is very different to those. It is made with a variety of vegetables and it could be made in any region of Italy. I like to eat it as a thick soup, packed with vegetables and little fish, but some may prefer it with more broth, less vegetables and more fish.
There is no reason why you could not vary the range of vegetables, for example in spring add some seasonal vegetables – use some asparagus, peas and fresh green beans.
I have used only one fish, a wild caught Victorian rock flathead. This is one of the least expensive, sustainable and great tasting. By using a whole fish you eliminate adding fish stock. Select local sustainable fish – Snapper, Silver Perch, Silver Trevally. Ask your fishmonger.
To make fish stock and cook the fish, cover the whole fish with cold water (5-6 cups to make soup for 6 people), add a little salt, a stalk of celery, a carrot, a small onion and a bay leaf – I leave all of these whole. Bring to the boil and poach until the fish is cooked. Drain the broth, remove the flesh from the fish (keep it in large pieces); keep the broth and the fish and discard the vegetables and the bones.
Alternatively, use a good quality fish stock and fresh, fish fillets (select a non-oily, fleshy fish).
1 whole fish and vegetables: make fish stock as above
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic
2 spring onions
1 celery heart
4 outside leaves of lettuce (iceberg, butter or romaine)
1 tomato or 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
½ cup of chopped parsley
salt and 1 chopped, fresh chilli or freshly ground black pepper to taste
Slice or cube all vegetables into small pieces.
Heat the oil in a saucepan (large enough to hold all of the ingredients) and sauté the vegetables except for the tomato (or paste). Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly.
Add fish stock, seasoning and tomato. Cover and cook until the vegetables are soft and to your liking.
Add the cooked pieces of fish, heat through and serve.
If using uncooked fish fillets, cut them into manageable pieces, add these to the hot soup, cover and cook the fish to your liking.