Borlotti bean soup and the cult of cucina povera

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I am an incurable mangiafagioli or ‘beaneater’.  Really though, what is wrong with admitting your passion for one of healthiest, most nutritionally dense foods on the planet? Fibre, protein, folate and iron are just a few of the many important nutrients beans contain. For as long as I remember I have loved eating them, particularly in soups. Flatulence and bloating, side effects they’re often accused of causing, aren’t a great concern of mine.

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My enthusiasm for beans, pulses and legumes has not only been influenced by what nutritionists have had to say about them. In hindsight, I think I may have fallen under the spell of what historian John Dickie in Delizia! The epic history of the Italians and their food has called the ‘rebranding exercise’ that cucina povera or ‘peasant/poor cookery’[i] has undergone here in Italy and beyond recently. The reality is that these staples (features of a traditional Italian peasant diet) probably would not have been as romanticised in the past as they are now by foodies and nutritionists. The peasants who worked the land and tended to livestock had to provide their landlords with periodic quotas of meat and eggs, leaving them to subsist on grains and plant-based sources of protein.  A bad harvest, moreover, would have meant very little of those precious plant-based sources of protein. In fact, at the turn of the 1900s, many Italian emigrants heading off to the Americas were found to be suffering from pellagra at their medical inspections. This illness, now almost unheard of in the industrialised world, is caused by a diet exclusively based on grains such as maize (the mainstay of a northern Italian peasant’s diet), resulting in a niacin deficiency.

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When I was growing up, my nonni would often prepare broad bean, borlotti bean and chickpea-based soups. I devoured them with gusto and would often comment on how much I liked these dishes. Their bemused response; my brother and I were lucky that we could go without them if we wished. Beans and chickpeas were literally all they had to eat.

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The subsistence diet my grandparents described was clearly anything but romantic. They would probably laugh at the idyllic picture of countryside life painted by today’s cucina povera cult. However, I still appreciate that dish that represented monotony to them – vegetable and bean-based soup. Lately, I’ve found myself buying kilos and kilos of the fresh borlotti beans currently gracing the stands at my local market. I am attracted to them like my toddler currently is to cupboards and draws. There’s something incredibly satisfying about removing these fine magenta-streaked specimens directly from their pods. They don’t require soaking or take as long to cook as their dried counterparts either. Obviously, when fresh borlotti aren’t available I use dried ones so I can get my soup fix throughout the year. The borlotti bean soup recipe below is based on a recipe from Five Quarters: Notes from a Roman Kitchen by Rachel Roddy. It includes instructions for cooking with both fresh and dried borlotti.

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Ingredients (for 4)

  • 1 kg fresh borlotti beans, podded (or 250 g dried beans, soaked for 12 hours)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 onion
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 200 g tomatoes (fresh or tinned)
  • 200 g pasta (dried tubetti or ditalini work well, or fresh maltagliati)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Method

  • Place podded beans in 1.5 litres of water in a large saucepan.
  • Add bay leaves, bring to boil and reduce to low-medium heat. Cover saucepan and allow beans to cook for 30 minutes or until beans are getting noticeably more tender (N.B. it may take longer with dried beans, about an hour).
  • While beans are cooking, finely dice onion and chop celery stalk.
  • Heat olive oil in large pan and add onion and celery. Cook until vegetables are noticeably softened and fragrant.
  • Pass tomatoes through a sieve or food mill and add them to pan.
  • Allow tomatoes to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • With a slotted spoon, begin adding beans to the pan. Stir and add the bean-cooking liquid to pan.
  • Leave soup to simmer on low-medium heat until beans are tender.
  • Remove a cupful of beans from pan and blend in a food mixer until smooth and pureed. Return pureed mixture to pan and season with salt.
  • In a separate saucepan, bring water to boil. Add pasta and cook for one minute less than the recommended cooking time. When that time is up, drain pasta in a colander and add pasta to soup. Cook and infuse in soup for one more minute. Remove from heat.
  • Serve with a little extra virgin olive oil on top.

[i] The cult of cucina povera generally manifests itself in three ways: 1. It seeks to demonstrate the humble peasant origins of dishes like bistecca alla fiorentina, dishes which include ingredients most peasants would not have been able to enjoy. 2. It romanticises rural life and omits the monotony and precarious nature of subsistence farming in a feudal society. 3. It seeks to demonstrate the peasant and/or countryside origins of Italian cuisine while ignoring the integral role played by urban centres in contributing to Italian food culture. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this in a future post! In the meantime, I recommend reading Gillian Riley’s entry on cucina povera in her Oxford Companion to Italian Food and  John Dickie’s Delizia!  

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4 comments

    I’m a proud bean lover too! I eat a bean-based dish 4-5 times a week, actually. I’ve never tried fresh Borlotti beans, so this is a recipe I’ve got to try.

    And very interesting about Cucina Povera. It is so romanticized now, but just a couple of generations ago there was nothing romantic about it. Reminds me of the Mediterranean Diet, and when Ancel Keys discovered people living the longest, healthiest lives in Mediterranean countries — particularly Greece. The people there ate very little meat, lots of legumes, nuts, fruit, veggies, olive oil, wine, etc. But they were not at all happy about eating very little meat! It was a luxury.

    If you like beans then you should definitely try out this recipe with fresh beans. You’ll have to hurry though as there won’t be fresh borlottis for much longer. Ancel Keys’ research about the Mediterranean diet in Greece sounds familiar. Would be fascinating to find out more about it. Like cucina povera, I’m sure it’s a phenomenon that’s been embellished and romanticised too!

    I had a feeling you’d be interested in this recipe Sonia. I know how much you like beans and cooking with them. I had planned to take a photo of the dish but each time I made it, the light disappeared on me!

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