La Gallina Vecchia
“La gallina vecchia fa buon brodo,” (“an old hen makes a good broth”) says an old Italian adage, lauding the wisdom of a sage elderly woman. But an old hen does make the best broth as the meat of a young chicken would slip off the bones while the chicken pieces simmer with carrot, celery, half an onion and a small ripe tomato or two (added for color as well as flavor). My Sicilian husband, Pino, remembers that years ago, il brodo di pollowas brought to the family of the deceased as the first food to eat after the funeral, then burial, of a loved one. After death – hopefully, in the family home, so that the women of the family can wash and dress the body – relatives sat all night with the deceased and relatives and friends would fill the house the next day. Burial was generally within forty-eight hours. Little to no food was eaten in the home during the mourning time before burial.
Chicken broth – light and simple but nourishing, strengthening – was the appropriate food for the breaking of the fast after mourning.
Chicken broth is linked to death in Italy but also in birth: 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 (knowing my mother and mother-in-law lived too far away to do this for me). “Per far scendere il latte”, (“for milk letdown”), Chiarina told me as she spooned out the broth.
How old is this custom? Many centuries for sure as a 16th-century Perugia fresco testifies. When you stop in to see the stunning Perugino frescoes in the Collegio del Cambio, look closely at the frescoes in the adjacent Cappella di Giovanni Battista. The key episodes of the life of St. John the Baptist, patron of the guild, were frescoed by an inferior apprentice of Perugino, Giannicola di Paola: colors are weak, the perspective is off. The scenes, though, historically interesting as they are all set in 16th-century Perugia with Elizabeth lounging on a bed of the period and surrounded by personages in the dress of that age.
As a midwife washes the new baby, the cousin of Christ, one day to be called “the Baptist”, Elizabeth washes her hands in a bowl held for her by a servant girl.
I’ve viewed these frescoes countless times since I passed my Umbrian guide exams in 1997 but last week – for the first time – I noticed a detail which made me smile:
the first gift for the new mother is in a basket carried on the shoulders of a farmer at the foot of Elizabeth’s bed. The head of a chicken – no doubt una gallina vecchia– pops up out of the basket.
Chicken broth will soon be simmering over the fire for the new mother.
I just told our farm neighbor Peppa the story of my “discovery” and showed her the photos of the fresco with la gallina vecchia for St. Elizabeth.
“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, Pino would kill the rabbits, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl we ate; afterwards it would be up to me to gut the animals, pluck the birds. When a hen was passed her laying heyday, into the broth.
For chicken broth for 6 or more, 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.
Often, about 1 lb of stew beef is included in the broth… and the bones from the beef which the butcher gives us.
*Vegetarian? Make a vegetable broth… just delete the meat.
Stracciatella (“little shreds”) soup takes an excellent chicken broth.
Ingredients for about 6 persons:
Make 2-3 qts of a good chicken broth. Mix one beaten egg per person. Add about 2 T (a handful) per person of Parmesan to the beaten eggs, salt, pepper as needed, finely-grated parsely – and if desired, lemon zest and/or a bit of grated nutmeg.
Stir with fork, slowly pouring egg mixture into boiling broth, letting cook not more than 3 minutes. Serve with additional grated Parmesan if desired.
The secret of a good stracciatella depends on the freshness of the eggs, the good flavor of the Parmesan, the art of the cook in obtaining a homogenous and light and airy egg/cheese mixture.