“On February 21, 1525, Francis I, King of France, was losing the battle of Pavia. Pursued by the Spaniards and about to surrender, he stopped at a cottage near the city and asked for a meal. As it happened, a classical vegetable minestrone was being prepared in the kitchen, and the cook, with a proper sense of occasion, decided to enrich it. She added a few slices of stale bread, toasted and buttered, broke a couple of eggs over the, threw in a few handfuls of Parmesan cheese, and poured the boiling vegetable broth over the top. Francis ate this strange new dish with great curiosity, and as the Spaniards closed in, he thanked the peasants for their hospitality, declaring, “What you have given me was a King’s soup.!” And that, according to authorities on Lombard cooking, was the origin of Pavia soup, or zuppa alla pavese.”
As my trip was sponsored by Pavia’s chamber of commerce and mostly of a gastronomic nature, I assumed that zuppa alla pavese – it’s named after the town and seemingly it’s most famous dish, after all – would be served at least one of the meals, and likely more. It wasn’t. Not only that, but the dish does not seem to exist on any of the town’s menus – at least I didn’t find and I was looking – and might not even be cooked much at all in the area. Our guide and translator, both from the area, had never had the dish. One reason that it might not be found on too many menus is that it’s relatively straightforward and unfussy dish, and one with centuries-old roots; how many menus sport items that were created in the 1500s, after all?
The dearth of the dish, and the resonance of its name, had encouraged the self-same chamber of commerce to encourage local eateries to update the dish in a variety of creative ways in a program called, “zuppa alla pavese 2.0” that might not have gotten too much traction. I did encounter that, well, a sign announcing it at one restaurant. I couldn’t get a table at the only place where I saw. The restaurants are especially tiny in Pavia, it seems, befitting a pedestrian-centric municipality not needing to seat an influx of tourists. No matter. A rendition of zuppa alla pavese is easy to recreate at home. Good bread and good stock are quite helpful. And, if you can get some of those gorgeously orange-yolked eggs that are used in Italy, even btter.
Zuppa alla pavese – adapted from “The Silver Spoon”
Serves 4 as a first course
Thick slices of hearty bread with the crusts removed – 4
Butter – 2 tablespoons
Meat broth, homemade if possible, of course – 3 cups
Eggs – 4
Parmigiano-Reggiano – 4 tablespoons
- Preheat oven to 400 F
- Bring the broth to a boil.
- Melt the butter in a pan and fry the bread on both sides.
- Put the bread in four ovenproof bowls.
- Break on egg on top of each slice of bread and pour over the hot broth.
- Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano to each bowl.
- Put into the oven for a few minutes or until the cheese melts.