Region: Italy, Lombardy
Difficulty: Easy and Quick
The lessons of an army too well fed can be recounted in this recipe from Pavia in Lombardy. Legend has it that when King Francis I of France (1494-1547) was defeated by Charles V of Spain (1500-1558) at the battle of Pavia in 1525, he took refuge in a nearby farmhouse. The embarrassed, yet deeply honored, housewife was preparing some soup. She had to turn her humble soup into a soup fit for a king, so she fried some stale bread, put it into the soup, and cracked in two newly laid eggs and ladled some broth over the eggs. The whites curdled gently and the yolks remained soft. She served it with grana padano cheese and the king approved, asking the recipe be given to one of his servants.
A nice story but typical of what I call the culinary apocrypha. In fact, the badly wounded Francis I was captured immediately by Spanish arquebusiers after his horse was killed under him and he was taken to Madrid as a prisoner. In any case, the Italian food writer Ada Boni, writing in the 1960s, suggested that the cottage where the soup was first prepared for him still stood in a rice paddy just off the main rail link from Milan to Pavia a few minutes before passing the Certosa, the charterhouse of Pavia. I don’t know if she believed this story or was repeating the legend.
The French historian Fernand Braudel suggested that the Battle of Pavia, besides being a triumph of the arquebusiers, was also the triumph of empty stomachs because Francis’s army was too well fed, while the Spanish and Lombards he fought could make do with a simple broth like this zuppa.
The crucial element to this soup is the broth. It should be clear and flavorful and home made.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 4 servings
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 slices (4 ounces) French or Italian bread with crust
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 ½ quarts veal broth (use the variation for veal)
4 small eggs
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Freshly grated white pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degree F. Warm four oven-proof soup bowls.
2. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, then cook the bread on both sides until golden, making sure you do not blacken the edges. Place a slice of bread in each bowl. Sprinkle a tablespoon of parmigiano on each slice of bread.
3. Bring the broth to a rolling, vigorous boil. Without breaking the yolk, crack 1 egg onto the center of each slice of bread and carefully ladle the boiling broth over the egg until the bowl is filled. Let sit 1 to 2 minutes, sprinkle with parsley and a pinch of white pepper and serve immediately. Add more Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table if desired.
Note: The broth must be boiling furiously before you pour it into the bowls, so the eggs, which are small, not large, can coddle.