Gallina vecchia fa’ buon brodo! “An old hen makes a good broth,” says an old Italian adage, lauding the wisdom of sage elderly women. And literally, an old hen really does make the best broth!
In Sicily for example, the first food eaten after the funeral and burial of a loved one was chicken broth, brought to the family of the deceased as a gift. Light and simple but nourishing, strengthening – it was the appropriate food for the breaking of the fast after mourning.
In Italy, chicken broth is linked to birth as well. When our first child was born in 1980, one of our farm neighbors, Chiarina, brought a pot of her chicken broth to me in the hospital.
Per far scendere il latte (“for milk letdown”), Chiarina told me as she spooned out the broth.
How old is this custom? Frescoes in Perugia’s Collegio del Cambio show the key episodes of St. John the Baptist’s life, yet they are shown as scenes from 16th-century Perugia life. I’ve viewed these frescoes countless times, but last week – for the first time – I noticed a detail which made me smile. The first gift for Elizabeth, the mother of the newly-born John, sits at the foot of her bed in a farmer’s basket. The head of a chicken – no doubt una gallina vecchia – pops out. Chicken broth will soon be simmering over the fire for the new mother for sure!
I told our farm neighbor Peppa the story of my “discovery”…
Ma certo, Peppa affirmed! “…and you cannot imagine how many old hens I received after the birth of our first-born, Leonello: thirty-five!”
Recipe for Chicken Broth, Umbrian-style
During the years we farmed, when a hen was passed her laying heyday, into the broth she went.
For chicken broth, we’d use about 2-3 qts. of water, adding the chicken wings, neck, back (head, feet, too! …nothing would be wasted), bringing it to a boil with a carrot or two, a piece of celery, and half an onion (Peppa likes to add a potato to her broth) and then simmering. Salt, pepper are added to taste. Broth is done when meat is tender. Vegetables can be passed in sieve when broth is done, then returned to broth.
An Umbrian tour guide in Italy most of the year, Anne also teaches Umbrian rural cuisine in private homes in the U.S. in February and March (see
Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s and rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for Anne. She writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. See www.annesitaly.com for more on her tours, cooking classes, lectures – and her blog! Do see www.stayassisi.com for news on the Assisi apartment she and Pino now rent out!