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PISA Dal XV secolo ai nostri giorni  Chickpea
The sacred legume shaped like a ram’s head
by Giorgio e Caterina Calabrese
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Versione Italiana

The sacred legume shaped like a ram’s head
by Giorgio e Caterina Calabrese

Versione Inglese


The chickpea, a noble yet also popular legume with a history of its own, also plays a major role in Pisan gastronomy.
The story goes that in 1284, during the battle of Meloria, the Pisans were captured by the Genoese and held prisoner for a long time in the holds of their ships, where they risked dying of hunger. Luckily the cargo of these holds included sacks full of chickpeas soaked in sea water.
The Pisans ate them and in this way staved off the pangs of hunger and survived. In honour of this providential rescue, the typical local speciality called cecina (from “cece” , chickpea) was also known as Pisa’s gold. A simple dish, it is made with chickpea meal, water, salt and oil cooked in enormous baking tins in wood-burning ovens. The chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is one of the oldest legumes we know of. It probably derives from two different species (C. echinospermum and C. reticulatum) indigenous to South-eastern Turkey. Excavations at Hacilar in Turkey have yielded traces of wild Cicer dating back to 5000 years ago. Evidence of chickpea cultivation in the Bronze Age (3300 BC) has been found in Iraq. In Egypt written documents have come to light testifying to the presence of chickpeas in the valley of the Nile between 1580 and 1100 BC. The name Cicer probably comes from the Greek kikus meaning strength, power, probably ascribable to the aphrodisiac properties and great nutritional value attributed to this legume. In Greece in Homer’s time it was known as Erébintos or also Krios, with reference to a ram’s head, and the name arietinum, first used by Columella, then by Pliny and later by Linnaeus in his botanical classifications, is probably ascribable to the shape of the seed, reminiscent of a ram’s head. In the days of ancient Rome legumes were held in great honour, to the point that many noble families were named after them. For instance the gens Fabia, to which Hannibal and Quintilianus belonged, derived their name from the fava or broad bean, while the Calpurnia family of the Pisoni, authors of a famous plot against Nero, were called after peas or pisum. Lentils gave their name to the Lentulo family, to whom the consul who did his utmost to bring his dear friend Cicero back from exile in 58 BC belonged. Finally, the great Roman writer from Arpinia, Cicero, derived his name from the chickpea or cicer. The gens Tullia, family of Marcus Tullius, considered it an honour to take on the cognomen of such an important plant. The stalk, 40 to 60 centimetres high, is branched at the base, while the top part is characterised by the presence of glandular hairs that secrete an irritant rich in oxalic and malic acid. The flowers are white, pink or purplish in colour. The fruits are swollen, reddish pods containing two or three pulses. Chickpeas are the world’s third most cultivated pulse vegetable, after soybean and beans, and production totals around 9 million tons. Chickpeas are grown mostly in Asia, which covers 91% of world production. In Europe cultivation began to drop in 1950 and in Italy the over 110,000 hectares of chickpea cultivation of 1950 fell to just over 3000 between ’92 and ’96, though it rose again to over 4000 in 99 - a minor comeback, due to the revaluation in nutritional terms of vegetables that have lost the importance they once had, like legumes. The chickpea’s reputation as a fortifying food, reflected by its name, is rooted in fact, since it abounds in nutritive principles. The chickpea contains 63% carbohydrates and fibres, around 20-25% proteins and also calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamins and essential amino acids such as thiamine, riboflavin and tryptophane, all elements that ensure survival even in extreme conditions, as happened long ago to the Pisan prisoners mentioned above. The plant’s versatility is proved by the multiplicity of its uses. The green tops are frequently eaten boiled, like spinach, in India. The leaves are used to make refreshing decoctions. The curious fact is that while other parts of the plant, like the sprouts and leaves, are suited to human consumption, the abundance of acids in the plant itself limit its use as fodder for animals and the straw is used mostly as litter, mixed with cereal straw. Chickpeas can be eaten when they have just been picked and are still green as an excellent snack (not so frequently in our times, given the range of tempting, rich sweets produced by the confectionery industry), or dried. In the latter case, they can be eaten just as they are or toasted to make a surrogate coffee or ground into meal. The mixture of chickpea and barley meal is called “farinella”. Chickpea meal is mixed with other flours, like that of peanut and sesame, to increase its biological value, because though chickpeas are rich in some essential acids, they are lacking in methionine and tryptophane. The meal is also used to make a dish whose name varies from region to region - in Pisa cecina, in Palermo panelle and in Piedmont farinata. Sprouted chickpeas contain double the amount of vitamin C than dormant chickpeas, which makes them useful in cases of vitamin deficiency as a natural integrator. Recently there has been talk of the advantages of a chickpea-based diet since it helps to bring down the cholesterol level, an effect that can be easily neutralised by adding butter or other animal-derived ingredients that have a cholesterol-increasing effect.

Giorgio e Caterina Calabrese, ecturer in Dietology at Università Cattolica S. Cuore di Piacenza- food and dietology expert


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