Rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, lentils have long been considered ‘the meat of the poor’. They are pulses from the papilionaceae family and they have been being eaten for centuries. Some studies conducted on fossils say that lentils are the oldest pulse ever to be cultivated by humans. The first traces of their existence date back to 7000 A.D., a period in which plants were already being cultivated, particularly in Asia and in the area that today corresponds to Syria, and from this area they became very common in all of the Mediterranean. As far as consumption goes, reports show that in Turkey they have been used since 5,500 A.D. It is clear to see, therefore, that their story started long ago and there are even references to lentils in the Bible, but that is not all: ancient Greek and Roman banquets were never without lentils, even if they were mainly eaten by the poor, due to their nutritious and energetic properties. In some ways, being a readily available and cheap food, this dish used to substitute a complete meal because it provides protein and vitamins and improves health and thus resistance to illness.
Use and consumption of lentils
The first important thing to say about eating lentils is that they must only be eaten once cooked since, when they are raw, they are not digestible due to anti-digestive features, which are destroyed by heat. They can easily be preserved and are very cheap, which is why they have always been consumed by many people in many countries, especially Italy where it is custom to eat them on New Year’s Eve as a wish for good fortune and to ‘guarantee’ a good future. Some uses of lentils derive from Roman traditions such as giving a ‘scarsella’ as a present (a little bag made of leather filled with lentils) with the hope that the lentils would change into coins. Lentils are now very common all over the world: in America, both North and South America, yellow and green lentils are harvested when the seeds are quite large (6-9mm). In Europe, in the Mediterranean basin, in the middle East and in India, lentils are collected when the seeds are smaller (2-6mm) and are orange, brown and reddish. When possible, it is best to choose dry lentils, instead of those in a tin, because they are richer in the nutrients and are free of preservatives. Although lentils in a tin are definitely more practical and quicker to cook, it is important to remember that cooking this pulse is quite easy: all you need to do is leave them to soak (for at least 4 hours and maximum 12 hours) and add some bicarbonate of soda (one spoonful for every litre of water): on contact with water, bicarbonate of soda dissolves, releasing carbon dioxide and water. The calcium then sinks, depositing itself onto the surface of the lentils, hardening them and slowing down cooking time. This is why baking soda is used: to increase the concentration of bicarbonate ions, whose job is to prevent a film forming on the surface of the pulses, making them more enjoyable. Another important detail, that should not be forgotten, is using the right amount of water when cooking so as not to loose the precious vitamins and minerals: it is best to use enough water to cover the lentils completely and, when cooking, leave them in the pan over a light flame for about half an hour.
The main varieties of lentils
The most valuable lentils, that are famous all over the world, are Italian lentils and in particular Castelluccio di Norcia lentils (from Umbria), which have been given the I.G.T. award (Protected Geographical Indication – Indicazione Geografica Protetta). These lentils are famous for their delicacy and shape: the average diameter of this variety is about 2mm. They are cultivated in the plains that overlook the mountains where the town of Castelluccio di Norcia lies (approximately 1,300m above sea level), an area of practically untouched nature. The citizens of Castelluccio are considered the predecessors of organic farming since every year, on the same terrain, they alternate the cultivation of lentils, wheat and grassland, without using any chemical fertilisers. Amongst the most well known lentils there are:
- Lenticchia di Colfiorito (lentils from Colfiorito); also cultivated in Umbria, on the plateau of Colfiorito
where the terrain is fertile thanks to a lake that is turning itself into marshland.
- Lenticchia verde di Altamura (green lentils from Altamura); these are slightly bigger than brown lentils and are used in side dishes.
- Lenticchia rossa (red lentils); also known as ‘Egyptian lentils’, these are very common in the middle East, they are sold peeled and require a relatively short cooking time.
- Lenticchie di Villalba (lentils from Villalba); these lentils are quite big.
- Lenticchie di Ustica (lentils from Ustica); these are small, tender, flavoursome and dark brown in colour.
- Lenticchie dell’Armuña (lentils from Armuña); these lentils are famous for their taste and softness.
Lentils from other places are also worth mentioning too: Fra Antilo, Chiaramonte, Gangi, Marianopoli, Restauro, delle Eolie, Ventotene and those from Mormanno.
Nutritional values and calories contained in lentils
|Dry lentils (Values per 100 grams):
• 325 Kcal
• Animal proteins: 0g
• Plant proteins: 25g
• Carbohydrates: 54g
• Fat: 2.5g
• Fibre: 13.7g
• Iron: 5.1mg
• Calcium: 127mg
• Vitamin C: 3mg
Lentils in a tin (Values per 100 grams):
The properties of lentils
Lentils have a high nutritional value and are made up of approximately 25% protein, 53% carbohydrates and 2% plant oil. They are also rich in phosphorous, iron and B vitamins. Furthermore, they also contain a good amount of sugar, a low amount of fat and are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. They are well known for preventing arteriosclerosis since the fat they contain is unsaturated. The large quantity of fibre they contain also make them very important and useful for the digestive system and for keeping levels of cholesterol under control. However, that is not all: lentils also contain isoflavones, substances that ‘clean’ the body. Experts recommend consuming lentils because of their antioxidant properties that work well against the pollutants that we are all subject too. These pulses are also rich in thiamine, which is useful for improving the memory, whilst the vitamin PP found in lentils means that they also serve as a powerful stabiliser for the nervous system, with antidepressant and antipsychotic functions. In conclusion, they are very good for those who require iron and are absolutely not advised for those with hyperuricaemia.
Cultivation, choice and preserving lentils
There is no particular month when lentils should be harvested but instead it is generally done all year round. When buying precooked lentils, make sure to check that there are no colorants or preservatives present. Lentils preserved in glass containers are the safer choice but ones in tins or vacuum packed are also fine as long as there are no traces of foreign substances and the lentils are still in intact (they should be placed in a fresh and dry place and consumed by the expiry date indicated on the packaging). Once they have been cooked however, they should be eaten with 2-3 days. The ‘ideal dose’ for each person is 80 grams.