Tales from an Ital­ian kitchen

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast - Rachel Roddy

Beans are en­er­getic sorts. They are run­ners, climbers, crawlers or, in the case of bor­lotti, ac­ro­batic in the way the vines bor­lano (tum­ble) as they grow. My mum talks about the bean plants in her Dorset gar­den be­ing vig­or­ous and pro­duc­tive, and de­scribes how they some­times bolt, both beans and plant, mak­ing her full-of-beans grand­chil­dren hope­ful that they might have a stalk to climb and a gi­ant to meet.

Lately, one of the stalls on Tes­tac­cio mar­ket has been get­ting crates of fresh beans in their pods, called il fa­gi­olo rosso rampi­cante, from Cu­neo in Pied­mont. Rampi­cante means climb­ing. I can’t get the word ram­pant out of my head, though – un­re­strained beans, red­heads turn­ing heads and steal­ing at­ten­tion. Un­der their mot­tled pods, they have rusty red streaks on cream-coloured skin, like bor­lotti. In fact, the stall­holder, Marco, refers to them as bor­lotti. An­other stall has beans with a darker mot­tle called bor­lotti lin­gua di fuoco, tongue of fire, while across the mar­ket Filippo calls the beans he grows on his land, slap-bang be­tween Rome and Naples, sim­ply fa­gi­oli.

While the ones from north­ern Italy prob­a­bly have the best flavour, all the va­ri­eties are de­li­cious, each los­ing their ink splat­ters and turn­ing brown as they sim­mer, but gain­ing a flavour be­tween a roasted ch­est­nut, a can­nellino and a chick­pea.

In sea­son from July un­til Oc­to­ber/ Novem­ber, the mot­tled bean fam­ily are an in­gre­di­ent that bridges the sea­sons. When they first ar­rive in June, they fit eas­ily into the rhythm of sum­mer cook­ing. Pod­ded and boiled un­til ten­der, they are good tossed with olive oil and herbs for serv­ing be­side meat or fish, mixed still-warm with a spoon­ful of pesto NIgel Slater-style, a chopped tomato or a tin of tuna and sliced onion. As the months be­gin to end with “-ber”, bor­lotti be­come the back­bone of stews and soups, first the brothy ones, then the thick soups and mines­tra we make as the months roll on.

The rea­son recipes de­scribed in per­son are of­ten bet­ter than those in books is the idio­syn­cratic de­tail. Ten years on, I can still hear a friend telling me to start a mine­strone by fry­ing the Ital­ian kitchen trin­ity (an onion, a car­rot and a stick of cel­ery, diced) in plenty of olive oil, with a pinch of salt to has­ten away wa­ter, un­til they smell nice and look like a frosted bath­room win­dow; that a peeled, squashed tomato makes the soup blush and gives it a nice note of acid­ity; that cook­ing fresh beans (1kg pod­ded) or dried (250g soaked overnight) in two litres of wa­ter means you earn 1.5 litres of cloudy bean broth that tastes bet­ter than a stock cube. She also showed me to mix a chopped red chilli or dried red pep­per flakes with olive oil in a bowl, then spoon a lit­tle over the fin­ished dish.

In my Septem­ber mine­strone, I add a diced potato and courgette with the tomato, be­fore the beans and their broth. You could add pancetta to the foun­da­tions, gar­lic or rose­mary, a squirt of con­cen­trate rather than a whole tomato; you could sub­sti­tute pasta for potato, can­nellini for bor­lotti. “Sim­mer un­til it is done,” said the same friend, “and keep tast­ing, but don’t poke a red chilli fin­ger in your eye.”

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