The Evolution of Jota

Cesare Fonda gives a very interesting discussion of Jota in Cucina Carsolina, his book on the cooking of the Karst plains, a region that's now in part Italy, and in part Slovenia: 

It's worth detouring to discuss the origins and evolution of this dish that brings together and characterizes the cooking of Trieste and the Carso. Nobody will ever know if its Jota was born in town or up in the hills, but considering that it's a mixture of boiled beans and capuzi garbi (sauerkraut) cooked in an earthenware pot, it certainly came into being as a way to use up leftovers. One can conclude this because even now its preparation requires two pots, and a skillet for the disfritto that's used to thicken it and almost all of our other soups.

Nor do we know when Jota was first prepared; perhaps in the 1300s, using the only beans available at the time (black eyed peas), boiled with capuzi garbi that we were already making.... However, I think it came into being in the 1600s, when the "modern" beans arrived from the Americas. 

All the modern writers, including me, have accepted a "rich" modern version that also has barley as being from the Karst mountains, since it's more common there, but it's important to note that it too is a recycling of leftovers, as it's simply a combination of orzo e fasoi (barley and beans) and capuzi garbi. One must also note that the basic recipe ..., which is quite frugal and now rarely made, undoubtedly resembles the original jota, which dates to the days when the farmers and the vast majority of the townspeople shared a brutal poverty known simply as miseria (misery); indeed, we find the same recipe in Marija Remec's Domaca Kuha (home cooking), which was printed in Lubiana (ex Yugoslavia) in 1942, a time that, in terms of abundance, was on a par with the worst famines of the middle ages.  

Fifteen years previously Maria Stelvio had published her book, Cucina Triestina, which includes a jota recipe that's almost as poor; with respect to Ms. Remec's recipe she adds 12 ounces of potatoes and a bay leaf, with the option of replacing the potatoes with two handfuls of corn meal. This substitution brings to mind the jota recipe Jacopo Cavalli published in 1890, after transcribing the words of Antonia Nigrisin, known as Bagatina, who was 84 at the time and one of the last people capable of speaking the ancient local argot. "Put the beans in one pot," she said, "and the capuzi in another, and boil both until cooked through. Add liquid if need be, and when they're done don't drain them, but stir the capuzi into the beans, then add a fistful of cornmeal to keep it all from being too watery; the soup will thicken and be more satisfying. To season it, take a pot and sauté some onion, leek or garlic, and breadcrumbs in olive oil, and stir the mixture into the soup. Season with salt to taste. [A simplified translation from her dialect]." 

One also has to mention that Caterina Prato, in her Süddeutsche Küche, initially published in 1892 when Austria was still leader (and still widely used in Friuli today, albeit in translation), gives a jota recipe much like this, except for the use of onion instead of garlic, and a little parsley in the seasoning mix. 

Slovenska Kuharica (Slovene Cooking), published in 1963, uses onion instead of garlic, and potatoes, but omits the parsley. Two years later Ivan Ivacic published Kuharska Knjiga (Cookery Book), which has a jota recipe with garlic, potatoes, smoked pork and bullion the first "rich" modern version to be presented in Slovenia. 

At this point it's clear that the basic jota, be it from Trieste or the Karst plains, can contain garlic or onion (and some use both), as well as potatoes or corn meal. One might think that the rich versions with luganega sausage or spare ribs date only to the great economic boom that dragged Italy out of poverty in the 60s, but this isn't true; there have always been "rich" variations, not just of jota, but also of bean soup, which goes so well with pork that one might be tempted to have a pig swim about in it. The "rich" versions were, however, reserved for the well off, while the masses only enjoyed them on Sundays, if they could, or on special occasions. 

None can deny that abundance is the best of conditions to find oneself in, but it is also true that overabundance produces distortions: In gastronomy the most evident are those that come with the frantic search for novelty at all costs. And thus we have a famed Umbrian cook, who can't see the ocean from his windows even with the aid of a telescope [a reference to Gianfranco Vissani, considered by many to be Italy's top chef], invent a jota with Pilgrim Scallops and gain the unconditioned applause of the snobs throughout the Peninsula. Those from Trieste and the Carso were instead at first taken aback, and then laughed.


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Created: Wednesday, June 11, 2003; Last updated: Monday, June 05, 2017
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