Chef Luigi Crisponi is adamant. There really is nothing he can teach me about s’erbuzzu, a simple, brothy yet still thick soup of greens, beans and tiny, chewy nuggets of pasta. “There is no recipe,” he says. “There’s just herbs.”
As many as 13 or even 14 herbs, in fact. None of which, without a recipe, is particularly helpful. I’d come to Gavoi—a tiny hillside town toward the northern end of Sardinia—to learn the local, rustic cuisine, a way of cooking drawn not from the sea at the shores of the Italian island, but from the land at the center of it.
Crisponi’s restaurant, Santa Rughe, all stone walls and arched ceilings, massive windows overlooking rolling green, specializes in the traditional cooking that evolved as Sardinians embraced produce, grains and a bit of meat and dairy. S’erbuzzu seemed a prime example. Beans, broth, a little fat and tons of herbs. Mostly bitter and foraged.
A dozen or more foraged fresh herbs and a bit of cheese create Sardinia's bold yet fresh s'erbuzzu soup.
As I taste his version, I insist he try to teach me. The flavor is bold, yet fresh, herbal and light. The beans are meaty and tender. The bitterness of the greens—and there are so many it is impossible to know one from another—is balanced, pleasant against a rich ricotta salata cheese stirred in just before serving.
Crisponi relents and walks me through it. White beans soak overnight, then slowly simmer with a bit of browned pancetta. Then the greens. He rattles off the list, only some of which I recognize. Finely chopped, they simmer until the beans are ready. Just before serving, the cheese and a bit of fregola—the small, pellet-like pasta Sardinia is known for—are stirred in. Just enough to thicken the broth. I continue to eat as Crisponi talks. I can taste the green of the hills I see outside.
Back at Milk Street, we loved the idea of a robust soup built not from meat, but fresh herbs. We did make a few changes for ease, including streamlining the list of greens to just parsley, arugula and tarragon, plus some fennel seeds to add complexity and mimic the wild fennel popular in Sardinia. We also opted for the speed of canned beans. The result may be a bit less foraged than the original, but it certainly is a recipe. An excellent one.