Artusi’s March: Recipe from a Tuscan Monastery
Pellegrino Artusi’s suggestions for lunch in March include this curious dish, Zuppa alla Certosina, a fish and tomato soup that is plumped up with an “egg-drop” finish. It’s a dish that originated in a monastery (as it’s name suggests), so it’s not something you’ll find on trattoria menus these days, but my mother-in-law remembers her mother making a similar dish when she was young – a soup known as Stracciatella, where an egg beaten with Parmesan cheese is whisked into boiling hot beef broth.
La Zuppa Certosina refers to the monastery where this dish came from, the beautiful Certosa del Galluzzo, which sits on top of a hill just outside Florence on the way to Siena. The 14th century monastery once held one of the most important libraries of its time and over 500 works of art. Much of it has been taken away in the last century but Pontormo’s deteriorated fresco cycle of the Passion, based on Albrect Durer’s woodcuts, is still there. The cycle was painted over two years in the 1520s when the artist stayed in Certosa to escape the plague in Florence.
The hermit monks lived an isolated and solitary life of silent meditation, coming out of their cells only on Sundays for lunch and prayer. Apparently the brothers were quite handy in the kitchen too. In his recipe, Artusi tells the story that the Grand Duke of Tuscany tried this soup in Certosa and was so impressed that he sent his personal chef to learn the recipe from the monks. However, the chef was never able to make the soup as well as the monks did. Apparently they left out their secret ingredient: capon broth instead of water.
It’s a really simple, tasty and warming dish that really needs to be tried. I’m trying to start a comeback. Here’s Artusi’s recipe, which would make enough for 4 people as a starter.
- 500 grams of fish*
- Half an onion
- Half a stalk of celery
- 1 litre of water (or chicken broth)
- Tomato pulp
- Salt and pepper
- 2 eggs
- Finely grated Parmesan cheese
- Bread (a loaf of ciabatta will do nicely)
- Olive oil
* In the original recipe, Artusi calls for “small fish” which refers to a mixture of soup fish that you can find at any fishmonger around Italy. In Tuscany, you’ll usually find local fish such as red mullet, scorpion fish, monkfish (very appropriate for this dish!) and sole. Their small versions are usually used for flavouring soups as they do not have as much meat as they do bones! Don’t worry if you cannot find the small versions, big ones will do fine as well. If you cannot find these exact fish, I suggest using any local tasty fish you can find. In Australia, flathead would work great for this dish, for example.
Chop the onion, celery and a handful of parsley very finely and place them in a large saucepan, sautéing gently in some olive oil until lightly golden. Add the fish and cover with water (or broth) along with the tomato and salt and pepper to taste (Artusi does not give measurements here for the tomato, but I would use a can of peeled tomatoes or equivalent pulp). Allow to simmer until the fish is cooked through and the soup reduced slightly.
In the meantime, make the croutons by cutting the bread into cubes, drizzling with olive oil and toasting in the oven until crunchy and golden. Set aside.
Take the saucepan off the heat and pass the entire soup mixture through a sieve, squeezing the solids well to drain all the liquid of them. Discard the solids remaining in the sieve and return the liquid to the saucepan and bring to the boil.
In a small bowl, beat together the two eggs and Parmesan cheese. If you are using a zuppiera, or a large soup bowl to present at the table (as was fashionable in Artusi’s day), pour the egg mixture into this, otherwise, divide the egg mixture into individual soup bowls.
Pour the boiling fish soup over the egg mixture and stir gently to mix the egg through the soup – the egg will cook in the hot soup and the whole thing will become beautifully creamy, slightly thicker, while the egg and parmesan create those little streaks characteristic of egg-drop soups. If you prefer a perfectly smooth and creamy soup, you can also blend the eggs directly into the saucepan of boiling soup after turning off the heat with a hand blender or a whisk.
Top with the croutons and some freshly chopped parsley.