Peas are an ancient and nutritious legume that risked disappearing from our tables, also due to false beliefs. In recent decades, the legume has been recovered thanks to the rediscovery work of young farmers in Italy.
1) Cicerchia, the oldest legume in the world
The cicerchia (Lathyrus sativus L.) is a plant belonging to the Leguminosae. It has an irregular, angular and flattened shape and a color ranging from gray to light brown. It is a microthermal crop (autumn-winter) considered as a model for sustainable production thanks to its peculiar characteristics, such as: (1)
- low production inputs, compared to the main cultivated food species,
- adaptive capacity in marginal lands characterized by e.g. low temperatures, various types of soils and climates, resistance to insects and diseases, and tolerance to water stress,
- higher yields, more efficient nitrogen fixation and greater resistance to salinity, compared to other legumes,
- high protein content for food and feed production.
These characteristics make it an exceptional crop to counteract the adverse effects of climate change. Some seed banks, such as the Millennium Seed Bank of Kew Gardens in England, consider it among the priority crops to be used to address new climate-related problems. (2)
The cicerchia it is widely cultivated and widespread in southern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in various regions of the Mediterranean. The origin is attributed, despite uncertainties, to the Balkan areas of present-day Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia, where the first domestication occurred in 6.000 - 7.000 BC, but it was subsequently introduced into many other areas, including Italy . There is more remote archaeological evidence in Iran (9500 BC) and in India in 1500-2000 BC.
2) Tradition in Italy
A treaty published by the National Research Center (CNR) highlighted the importance that the crop had in Italy in the past, especially in the rural area of the South. However, its diffusion and consumption have undergone a drastic decline, so much so that it has disappeared from official Italian statistics starting from the 70s of the last century. (3)
The motivations more accepted hypotheses contemplate the association of grass pea with a poor food, consumed by a low social class (for the time) such as that of Italian farmers, which was followed by a development of collective well-being and a general change in eating habits, as well as the modernization of agricultural production with the use of high input which are not economically compatible with this type of cultivation.
3) Properties of cicerchia
The nutritional value of grass pea is very respectable, with a protein content of up to 35% and carbohydrates between 48-52,3%. It is the only food source of the amino acid L-homoarginine, which contributes to the mitigation of various cardiovascular problems, hypoxia, Alzheimer's and various memory-related problems. The presence of glutathione and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), with antioxidant action, various B vitamins and vitamin A, together with the pro-vitamin β-carotene, and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc is appreciable. (4)
The beta form of oxalyldiaminopropionic acid (β-ODAP) is a neurotoxin responsible for the onset of the so-called. lathyrism, consisting of muscular atrophy or paralysis of the lower limbs in the most severe cases, in humans and animals. To avoid these adverse effects, it is sufficient to avoid a preponderant and consecutive consumption of grass pea, and to soak the legumes well (taking care to change the water several times) and cook them adequately. The selection and improvement of varieties with low or no β-ODAP content is a further contributor to its reduction, as is cultivation in adequate agronomic conditions (e.g. presence of zinc in the soil).
β-ODAP it is also present in the roots of the ginseng plant, and is marketed for pharmaceutical purposes for the treatment of hemorrhages and thrombopoiesis, so much so that it is used in the formulation of some toothpastes to prevent gum bleeding. This is to demonstrate that the neurotoxic effects are due to the dose, showing how a risk factor can instead present itself as an opportunity for use as a cultivation for medical and pharmaceutical purposes.
4) Cicerchia as a SlowFood garrison
After the Second World War, with the development of industry and the depopulation of the countryside, the grass pea was replaced by more profitable legumes that require less work. Only in recent decades have some young Italian farmers rediscovered this precious legume, giving new life and dignity to the legume thanks also to the support of Slow Food presidia.
4.1) The Cicerchia of Serra de' Conti
in 1996, in Serra de' Conti, a small Italian village in the Marche region in the province of Ancona, a group of young people feel the urgency of saving some food and wine products from oblivion. Among these, there is a variety of grass pea which, compared to the others, has a smaller shape, a less leathery skin and a sweeter flavour. It also requires less soaking time (5 hours are enough) and cooking time, around 40 minutes.
Traditionally, the grass pea was sown in spring, among the corn together with beans and chickpeas and was harvested in August. The plants gathered in bundles were hung to dry in the sun and then beaten in the threshing floors. The grass pea can be used to enrich soups and broths, or transformed into cream, like macco of which it has often replaced the broad beans. Or ground to obtain flour for maltagliati and pappardelle. (5)
4.2) The Moco of the Bormida Valleys
Since 2012 Slow Food has begun a process for the defense and diffusion of another variety of grass pea, the moco. Its rusticity has also allowed it to grow in the gullies of the Bormida valley, in Liguria and to resist weeds without the need for interventions with chemical substances. Tradition dictates that it is sown by hand on the hundredth day of the year, at the beginning of April. When the pods are ready, in mid-July, they are mowed in the early hours of the day to avoid the pods opening.
NGTs plants they are grouped in small 'sheaves' kept in the shade of barns to allow them to dry. The beating will take place on the first Sunday of August, which coincides with the moco festival. The remains of the plants will be returned to the land as fertilizer. The seed requires soaking for 24 hours before being used in the dishes seen above as well as in two traditional dishes: farinata cooked in a wood-fired oven and panissa fried or cut into cubes with cherry tomatoes and spring onions. (6)
5) Link with the territory
The 'disappearance' of the grass pea in the tradition of Italian eating habits it did not allow obtaining recognition of a protected designation of origin (DOP) or a protected geographical indication (PGI). However, traditional agri-food production (PAT) was recorded in the following Italian regions:
- Puglia, where the grass pea is also known as Fasul a gheng, Cicercola, Black chickpea, Ingrassamanzo, Old woman's tooth, Square pea,
- Lazio, including Campodimele grass pea,
- Sardinia, where it is also known as Sardinian cicerchia,
- Emilia Romagna,
In Abruzzo, Marche and Molise Cicerchiata is also present in the PAT list, a carnival dessert made with shortcrust pastry balls that resemble the shape of grass pea (but does not contain any), and covered in honey.
The cicerchia it is a versatile legume rich in nutritional properties beneficial to our health. For its growth it does not require much water or the help of herbicides and pesticides. It also has a fertilizing action on the soil through its nitrogen-fixing action. Introducing this legume into our diets contributes to our health and the development of more sustainable agricultural practices.
Alessandra Mei and Andrea Adelmo Della Penna
(1) Gonçalves L. et al. (2022) Grass Pea (Lathyrus sativus L.)—A Sustainable and Resilient Answer to Climate Challenges. Agronomy 12(6):1324, https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy12061324
(3) Polignano G. et al. (2017). The grass pea (Lathyrus sativus L.) A traditional crop to be rediscovered. Monograph or scientific treatise, 2017 ITA. CNR https://publications.cnr.it/doc/375230
(4) Ramya KR et al. (2022) Rediscovering the Potential of Multifaceted Orphan Legume Grasspea – a Sustainable Resource with High Nutritional Value. Front. Nutr. 8:826208, https://doi.org/10.3389/frutto.2021.826208
(5) Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Onlus. Cicerchia Serra de' Conti. https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/it/presidi-slow-food/cicerchia-di-serra-de-conti/
(6) Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Onlus. Moco from the Bormida Valleys. https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/it/presidi-slow-food/moco-delle-valli-della-bormida/