The chickpea that’s been into space

18 January 2021

Chickpeas and onions. The main activities of the Iannone Anna farm in Acquaviva delle Fonti, Puglia, revolve around special varieties of this legume and vegetable.

Though they also grow lots of other plants, from cherries to olives, it’s the chickpea and the onion that really represent the business.

Both the chickpea and the onion in question are Slow Food Presidia, and the Murgia Carscia Black Chickpea is a source of particular pride, as it was chosen by the Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to be brought aboard the International Space Station.

The Murgia Carsica Black Chickpea

Murgia Carsica black chickpea

The Murgia Carsica black chickpea represents more than just a desire to save a rare legume variety. It’s a commitment to preserving rural society in a place that was once a patchwork of fields, olive groves, vineyards, where almonds, legumes and many other crops were all-adapted to the rocky and often water-poor terrain. Today, however, lots of farmers have abandoned the countryside to go and work in towns.

So how is it different from a normal chickpea? It’s smaller, with a wrinkled skin and dark color. It’s never had much of a mass market, in part because its thick skin requires a long period of soaking and cooking (around two hours). But good things come to those who wait, and in the case of this chickpea the reward comes in its herbaceous and savory flavor, so much that it may be eaten simply with a dash of oil and almost no salt.

Vito Abrusci, who grows the black chickpea, speaks about it with enthusiasm: “We inherited the land in 1996, and we’ve been taking care of it since then. The chickpea nourishes the terrain it grows in, and the people who worked this land in the past knew that: crop rotation was commonplace to improve soil fertility and limit or eliminate the use of external products. Chickpeas and onions have always agreed with each other, and in our fields – as well in our finished products – they continue hand in hand.”

A crop marriage with the Acquaviva Red Onion

Vito con le cipolle rosse di Acquaviva

The second Presidium on the ground here is the Acquaviva Red Onion, cultivated here since at least the 19th century. It’s a large onion, with a flattened form and intense color that becomes whiter as you cut through to its center.

“If you grow it on terrain where you’ve had chickpeas the year before, the onions have a lot more nourishment in the soil. So by using this technique we reduce the need for fertizilers or other external inputs. It’s a perfect marriage, which we celebrate in of our traditional products: a patè of chickpeas and onions, which we call ‘the old peoples’ nutella’.”

The term “marriage” is not casual. Another product of the farm is the red sponzale (meaning bridegroom), i.e. the new bulb which grows out of a mature onion in a natural cycle of vegetative reproduction. It has a fresh, sweet and delicate flavor, good both raw or cooked, and unlike the onion, which is harvested in July and August, the sponzale is harvested in the autumn and winter.

Already famous

These are simple, humble ingredient. Indeed, it’s this simplicity that, together with their healthiness, is the reason for their success. As Vito sees it: “The collaboration with Slow Food is fundamental for us. Together with the scientific research conducted by the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Bari and the Puglia Region. The black chickpea has gone into space with Samantha Cristoforetti, as ingredient in her soup, and in a few days it will be a protagonist on Masterchef. The red onion has a place in international cooking schools like Alma, and Canavacciuolo himself came to visit us and learn more about these crops. Even Prince Charles has taken an interest in them.”

Each step forward has contributed to the reputation of the business. A reputation that’s more important than ever these days, while traditional crops need to be able to find a space in market that’s increasingly influenced by communication, and while one type of steadfast client – restaurants – is not able to support them.

by Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it

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