In the hills around Enna, known as the Colline Ennesi, in the Sicilian interior, grains and legumes alternate with olive groves and fruit orchards. Here, where it is cold and damp in the winter and hot and dry in the summer, farmers have long cultivated traditional varieties of legumes in the period between winter and spring.
These varieties have been passed down through the generations, and the black lentil is one of the most characteristic, due to its unusual color. The small lentils have a black outer layer, but are brownish-red inside. Cultivated in loose soil, the seeds are rich in iron and protein, and the plants improve the soil’s fertility.
Their genetic variability (shown by the frequent presence of non-black seeds) is not a defect; on the contrary, it allows them to survive and adapt to the climate change that is making these areas increasingly arid.
Until the 1950s, the black lentil was very common. Along with chickpeas, cicerchie (grass peas) and fava beans, it was cultivated in rotation with durum wheat and forage crops. However, the need to manually manage the entire growing cycle led many farmers to switch to more easily mechanized crops. A very small number of growers kept the seeds and continued to cultivate them following the traditional techniques, generally for domestic consumption only.
Black lentils from the Enna hills have an intense flavor; traditionally cooked in soups, thanks to an unusual mineral note they are also excellent with fish and seafood, particularly shrimp.
The black lentil plants do not need to be irrigated and are cultivated without the use of any plant protection products.
At the end of May, as the plants gradually turn yellow, they grow heavier and end up lying on the ground. They are then cut by hand, using scythes, and left to dry in small bundles. After a few hours, larger sheaves are formed, known as regni. When they are fully dry, they are carefully transported to the farmyard for threshing.
This is a long, laborious process: during the hottest hours of the day, the plants are beaten with pitchforks and turned over again and again. This allows the seeds to fall to the bottom and the straw to rise to the top. Everything is thrown in the air using pitchforks so that the wind can help separate the seeds.
The last phase involves sorting out impurities, traditionally carried out by the women.
The lentils are harvested between the end of May and the first days of June, but are available year-round.
Despite its excellent nutritional value, the Colline Ennesi Black Lentil has been gradually replaced by commercial varieties with higher yields whose cultivation can be more easily mechanized. Currently less than five hectares are planted with black lentils in the entire Colline Ennesi area, mostly around the small town of Leonforte, which has chosen to promote them as a typical product along with peaches ripened in paper bags and a native fava bean variety.
The Slow Food Presidium is represented by an association of small-scale farmers who are committed to recovering this ancient lentil variety and reviving its traditional sowing in wide rows.
Initially three producers were involved but the Presidium is inspiring great interest and a number of young farmers are evaluating the suitability of their land for cultivating the lentil.
Angelo Calì, Leonforte (En), Contrada Rossi, +39 Tel. 0935 664319 / +39 334 3668010, email@example.com, www.leonforteagricola.it
Francesco Muratore,Leonforte (En), Contrada Noci, Tel. +39 327 8334764, firstname.lastname@example.org
Luigi Rampello, Enna, Contrada Figotto, Tel. +39 0935 510382 / +39 3381552342, email@example.com