‘Beard Splasher’ Soup
I always say that I don’t believe I’m a chef. I try to be a storyteller.
— José Andrés, chef, restaurateur, and founder of World Central Kitchen
I have always been attracted to whimsical recipe names and the stories that lay camouflaged within their ingredients. I’m talking about dishes like pets de nonne (literally nun’s farts), priest chokers (Strozzapreti), and the imam fainted (Imam bayildi). A dish is the intersection of provenance, history, and food.
To me, recipes are edible stories that capture the junctures of cultural development. They chronicle the moments of prosperity, poverty, invasion, conquer, exploration, and trade. A good story should not only educate and entertain but also connect us to our past. For diners, it can elevate a meal; possibly transforming it into a transcendental experience. For cooks, it can add reverence to an ingredient or a particular dish. For a server, it acts as a storytelling bridge to help engage customers and take them on a voyage of discovery.
Sguazabarbuz, or beard splasher, is an Italian pasta and bean soup from Ferrara created to commemorate Lucrezia Borgia, or at least her hair. I first read about it in Colman Andrews’ cookbook The Country Cooking of Italy (2011).
The story starts on May 29, 1503, when Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, came to Ferrara to marry Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. A steward of the palace, taking inspiration from her golden locks, created this special pasta and bean soup in her honor. The pasta was shaped to resemble her hair.
Lucrezia, Femme Fatale
The actual story is far more complicated and longer than I have presented here. It is loaded with more plot twists than your average Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Lucrezia was a femme fatale of the highest degree. Her father, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, had arranged several marriages into influential families to help advance her power-hungry family. A family that was far too willing to spill blood advance the family name.
Her first marriage to Giovanni Sforza enabled her father to ascend from a mere cardinal to Pope. When the marriage no longer gave the family benefit, her father had it annulled on the grounds that the relationship had never been consummated.
While the deal was being negotiated, she had gotten pregnant by someone else. Her first marriage ended on December 27th, 1497, and three months later she gave birth to an illegitimate son coincidentally named Giovanni. Stories swirled about the child being a product of incest, until two papal decrees later, Giovanni became the son of Pope Alexander.
Her next marriage came in July of 1498 to Alfonso of Aragon, the 17-year-old Duke of Bisceglie and son of the late king of Naples. Lucrezia and Alfonso had a child, but unfortunately for Alfonso, Pope Alexander and Lucrezia’s brother Cesare sought a new alliance with France, and Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso was a major obstacle. On July 15, 1500, Alfonso narrowly survived a brutal murder attempt only to be strangled to death by Cesare’s goon squad while recovering from his stab wounds.
After Alfonso’s death, Lucrezia’s father arranged for her to be married to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Her new husband was rightfully hesitant because of the Borgia family reputation. The couple moved far away from the in-laws, thereby escaping the endless scheming of her power-hungry father and brother. Lucrezia and Alfonso became the reigning duke and duchess of Ferrara where Lucrezia garnered a more tranquil reputation as a patron of the arts.
Beard Splasher Soup
Good News: You don’t have to kill your husband to enjoy this wonderful soup!
Sguazabarbuz (Beard Splasher)
Italian Cranberry Bean and Pasta Soup
Prep Time 15 minutes; Cook Time 1 hour; Servings 4
- 1 cup dried cranberry beans (borlotti beans) soaked in cold water overnight
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 more tablespoons of olive oil
- 3 ounces pancetta diced
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 1 stalk celery finely chopped
- 2 carrots finely chopped
- 4 cups homemade chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 4 sage leaves
- sea salt and black pepper to taste
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- ½ pound Maltagliati or tagliatelle pasta
- ½ cup grated Parmesan
- Drain the cranberry beans then add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until done, about 45 minutes.
- In a large Dutch oven, add olive oil and pancetta and cook over medium heat until light brown, about 10 minutes. Add onions, celery, and carrots then cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
- Mash half the beans, then add to pancetta along with remaining whole beans, chicken broth, and herbs. Bring to a rapid boil over high heat then reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- When you are ready to serve, cook the fresh pasta, and drop into the soup. Divide the soup among 4 bowls and garnish each with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil.