Tales from an Italian kitchen
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.”