These tiny, round, purplish-brown lentils, just a few millimeters in diameter, grow only on the slopes of the Gran Sasso. They are cultivated at altitudes over 1,000 meters above sea level, in the pristine environment of the national park. Some plots are as high as 1,600 meters, but the best results come from those at around 1,200 meters. Due to their small size and permeability, Santo Stefano di Sessanio lentils do not require soaking before cooking. They are extraordinarily flavorful, and the best way to enjoy them is in a simple soup. The recipe involves covering them with water and adding a few peeled cloves of garlic, some bay leaves, salt and extra-virgin olive oil, then covering the pot and simmering until tender.
This unusual lentil is in fact a specific biotype, selected over the centuries in the local area. Monastic documents dating from as far back as 998 mention the cultivation of legumes, and particularly lentils, in this part of the province of L’Aquila. Lentils have found their ideal habitat here, with long, cold winters and short, cool springs. The lentils are sown towards the end of March in the poor, chalky mountain soils, ideal for the plants, which do not require much fertilizer. The legumes require more work when it comes to harvesting, which takes place between the end of July and the end of August. The lentils ripen gradually, and at different times depending on the altitude of the fields. At times there can be as long as 15 days between the cutting of the plants (almost always done by hand) and threshing. The seeds will continue to ripen on the cut plants when left in the field, first piled in small sheaves and then heaped up under the protection of a canvas. Often it is not possible to use a combine harvester, not only because the plots are inaccessible with machinery, but also because the legumes develop close to the ground and mechanized harvesting would mean losses of 30 to 40% of the harvest. In short, harvesting takes place as it did a thousand years ago, and requires great effort.
Lentils are harvested in August, but consumed dried and available all year.