Product of the week: black chickpeas

Categories: Product of the week

An unusual variety of chickpea from a hilltop farm in Calabria

On these shores, eating chickpeas is largely seen as the preserve of the middle classes—and veggies and vegans, who tout them for their protein-giving properties. But chickpeas began their cultivated life as the very essence of poor man’s fare. “There is an old tradition in my town in Calabria where, on 19th March, the church gives out chickpeas to everybody,” explains Francesco of De Calabria. “They were basically the main food of the poor—everyone ate chickpeas in the past. Nowadays people buy what’s in the supermarket. This is sad in a way, because they don’t understand the richness of our land. It is our mission to change this.”

The black chickpeas found at the stall are not the kind that arrive anonymously on the shop shelf in a tin; their provenance is something De Calabria is all too happy to shout about. “The producer is Azienda Agricola CarloMagno and we are really proud to have this amazing producer at the Market,” explains stall owner Giuseppe. “The farm is located at the border of Calabria and Basilicata, inside the national park of Monte Pollino in the little hilltop village of Civita. It is a recognised Albanian minority in Italy.” They cultivate only heritage varieties, “all of which were in danger of extinction. They collected seeds from the few remaining old-style farmers, who were miraculously conserving them.”

The unusual colour of these particular chickpeas is not created through processing—they are simply a rare variety with a naturally dark tone. “It is a permaculture; the produce is not pushed to obtain quantity, but left to mature naturally,” Giuseppe continues. “At an altitude between 500 and 1,000 metres above sea level, the region has a special microclimate, with mineral water available for irrigation where necessary, and limestone and ferro-rich soils. The result is incomparable quality. The chickpeas are full of minerals and they’re not at all woody, but buttery with delicate skin.”

Meaty and interesting
Being dried, the chickpeas require soaking for 24 hours before cooking, but otherwise can be used in much the same way as the more familiar white variety—though “they do need cooking for 10 to 15 minutes longer, as these are quite a bit harder,” Francesco advises. “They are quite small and compact, but the fatter ones you find are only bigger because they are full of water—these are just chickpeas. They have a similar flavour but they’re a bit more intense, in a good way. You feel like there is something more going on. They are quite meaty, which makes them interesting.”

When asked how they would traditionally be used in Calabria, Francesco grins: “We have them with pasta. It is a classic dish, we have been making it for thousands of years. If you don’t want pasta, you can have a plate of chickpeas with some vegetables, or on the side of meat—Giuseppe recently cooked black chickpeas with cow’s tongue. It was very good, honestly!” he laughs. “All the grandmas in Italy cook them and mix them with a bit of pepper, onion and garlic, in a kind of soup. But in my family? We have pasta.”