Lake Bolsena is a crater lake of volcanic origin in central Italy, which began to form 370,000 years. It is the largest volcanic lake in Europe and is the fifth largest lake in Italy with a circumference of over 26 miles (43 km). Lake Bolsena’s bed was formed from a caldera in the extinct Vulsini volcano. A caldera is a volcanic feature formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption. The underlying rock in the area where the lake formed, the caldera, collapsed into a deep bowl. This bowl was gradually filled by rain water and underwater sources.
Roman historical records indicate volcanic activity last occurred there in 104 BC and it has been dormant since then. The two islands, Bisentina and Martana, in the southern part of the lake, were formed by underwater eruptions following the collapse that created the caldera.
The lake is fed primarily by underground springs and rainwater and has a single outlet, the river Marta that flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the vicinity of Tarquinia. The lake has an oval shape, typical of crater lakes. The long axis of the ellipse is aligned in a north-south direction. The entire lake is surrounded by hills and is a good vacation spot. It has beaches, a harbor, restaurants, hotels and a medieval historic center surrounded by walls with a castle at the top. On the lake one can enjoy water sports, from canoeing, water skiing, sailing to surfing. Unlike most lakes, Lake Bolsena displays tidelike movements, called “sessa” with the difference between low and high tides being as much as 50 cm or 20 inches.
Lake Bolsena is north of Rome in the Northern Lazio region, just south of Tuscany. Bolsena, the main town on the lake, is on the northeastern shore. In the 7th century BC, it was the site of a Villanovan settlement whose huts were built on stilts directly over the water, using reed platforms, hay roofs and cobbled floors. About four hundred years later, it was settled by the Etruscans after they fled from the Roman destruction of Velzna in 264 BC. Velzna eventually became Volsinii, a Latin name which has been transformed over the centuries into Bolsena.
The Rocca Monaldeschi della Cervara sits at the top of the hill, overlooking the medieval quarter of the town. The castle was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. It has been completely renovated and, since 1991, has housed the Museo Territoriale del Lago di Bolsena (Lake Bolsena Territorial Museum). Each of its three floors is dedicated to various aspects of Bolsena’s history, ranging from its prehistoric volcanic origins to its Etruscan-Roman period. The Church of St. Christine is the town’s other major site. It is a Romanesque church built in 1078 in a typical basilica style over the catacombs where St. Christine, a young woman martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, was buried.
The territory of Lake Bolsena brings with it a whole host of ancient traditions that are also reflected in the local cuisine, with flavors and products typical of their ancient recipes and cooking methods. It is also famous for its clear lake waters and the nickname “the lake with a drink. Long ago, lake water was used in cooking. Fishermen prepared the Sbroscia in a clay pot using freshly caught fish; it was one of the few means of survival, when they had little more than what the lake could offer. It was prepared within the small hut on the shore that was used as a refuge and as a warehouse for their supplies.
Acquacotta is the name of a typical local soup prepared with chicory, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, hot pepper, dried cod, dry bread and olive oil. Other soups of the local cuisine are made with mushrooms, legumes, chestnuts, lake fish (sbroscia) and lamb. First courses often include rice and lentils, pasta and potatoes, rice and chicory, peas with quadrucci (small squares of hand-made egg pasta) and “minestrone alla Viterbese”.
Pasta dishes include maccheroni, ceciliani, lombrichelli (made with only flour and water), potato gnocchi, fettuccine, pappardelle, gavinelle or polenta. These dishes are often served with a classic ragout – meat sauces prepared with hare, wild boar, mushrooms, spare ribs and pork sausages or, in summer, with fresh garden vegetables, such as: zucchini, eggplant, turnip greens or sweet peppers.
For main courses, rabbit alla cacciatora, stewed chicken with tomatoes, wild boar with tomato sauce, stewed hare, baked lamb, tripe with tomato sauce, fried coratella (veal intestines), roasted pork or pignattaccia (a stew made with meat and vegetables) are most common. Main fish dishes, prepared with lake fish, include: fried perch fillets, stewed eels, fried lattarini, stewed or fried pike and baked or grilled whitefish.
Typical desserts include: sweet ravioli made with ricotta, ciambellone (simple white cakes), tarts made with ricotta or jam, crunchy biscuits and cookies made with hazelnuts and sweetened fritters made with rice.
Chickpea and Chestnut Soup
This ancient soup recipe of chickpeas and chestnuts is one of the typical dishes of the area.
- 1.5 cups dried chickpeas
- 1 oz pancetta
- 10 ½ oz chestnuts, chopped
- 4 peeled tomatoes
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic,
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
Cover the chickpeas with water in a bowl and soak for about 24 hours; drain and pour into a pot with water to cover. Cook until the chickpeas are softened, about an hour; add the salt. Drain the chickpeas; set aside a 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid and puree half the chickpeas.
Chop together the garlic, rosemary and pancetta. Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in the pot used to cook the chickpeas and cook the pancetta mixture for a few minutes.
Add the pureed chickpeas, the whole chickpeas, the cooking water and the chopped chestnuts. Cook the mixture for 5 minutes, then add the diced tomatoes and the bay leaf.
Mix add the broth, stirring well; let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes over low heat. Remove the bay leaf before serving.
The Sbroscia of Lake Bolsena
Sbroscia is a stew of fresh fish from the lake. There are many species of fish that inhabit the lake: whitefish , eel , pike , tench , trout, perch and silversides are a few examples. Any combination of fish may be used in the recipe.
- Olive oil
- 1 tench (minnow family)
- 1 pike
- 1 eel
- 4 perch
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 large potatoes, diced
- 3 tomatoes, chopped
- Stale bread ( 3-4 slices per serving dish)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- Small bunch mint, chopped
- Crushed red pepper flakes
Cut the fish into serving pieces.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch Oven or large soup pot. Add the garlic, mint and onion and cook until the onion softens.
Add the potatoes and tomatoes and saute for a few minutes. Add all the fish, 6 cups of water and salt to taste, cover the pan, and cook for 30-35 minutes.
Place 3 to 4 slices of bread in each serving bowl and pour in the stew. Drizzle with olive oil before serving.
The whitefish sauce is served with fettuccine or spaghetti.
- 1 whitefish, filled
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup white wine
- 3-4 peeled and chopped tomatoes
- Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Cooked pasta
Saute the onion and garlic in a large skillet. Add the whitefish fillets and saute until cooked through. Break up the fish into smaller pieces.
Add the wine and cook until it evaporates. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook until no longer raw. Season with salt and the crushed red pepper.
Mix in the cooked pasta and garnish with chopped parsley.
Risotto with Perch Fillets
This risotto uses the freshwater perch in the starring role.
- 7 tablespoons butter, divided
- 2 cups risotto rice
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
- 4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable stock)
- 3 perch fillets (per person) – about 18 total
- Flour or bread crumbs for coating
In a heavy saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon butter until it melts. Add the chopped onion and cook until it is tender. When the onion becomes transparent, add the rice to the pot and mix it well. Let it cook for a couple of minutes. Then, add the wine to the pot. Mix the rice until the liquid evaporates, then add the broth, a small amount at a time, stirring it constantly to allow even absorption of the liquid. When the rice is just about tender, add the salt, pepper and cheese and allow to melt.
Meanwhile, to cook the fish – batter the fillets in the flour or bread crumbs and then cook the perch in batches in a hot skillet using some of the remaining butter. Turn the fillets over once and cook until each side is golden brown. Repeat with remaining fillets and butter.
Spoon the rice onto a serving dish and top with the fish fillets. Just a note to add an additional Italian twist to this risotto: heat some butter in a pan and add a handful of sage leaves. Let the butter melt and become infused with the herbs. When the risotto is ready to be served pou,r the butter sauce over the fish.
Sweet Rice Fritters (Frittelle di Riso)
Makes about 40
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) short grain rice (arborio)
- 2 cups (500 ml) milk
- Zest of 1 lemon or orange (or a mixture of both)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons Italian dessert wine: Vin Santo
- 1/3 cup (40 grams) flour
- 2 large eggs
- Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
Cook the rice in the milk, watching very carefully that it doesn’t burn or overflow – don’t take your eyes off it! You will need to stir it quite often to make sure it doesn’t stick and burn on the bottom. When the milk has been mostly absorbed and the rice is very soft, take the pan off the heat and add the citrus zest and sugar.
Set aside. Once completely cool, add the wine, eggs, baking powder, salt and flour. Combine thoroughly then cover and let the mixture rest for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator before using. The mixture may look quite runny, like a pancake batter.
Drop tablespoons of batter into hot oil, and fry, turning to cover all sides evenly until a deep brown. Transfer to paper towels to drain before rolling in powdered sugar. These are best eaten the day they are made.