Cucina Conversations: Fagioli grassi for Carnival

Calabrian proverb: Those who marry are only happy for a day, but those who slaughter their pig are happy for an entire year.

It was January 16, the eve of Saint Anthony Abbot’s Day. The family of tenant farmers had just assembled around their wobbly wooden table ready for dinner. The four children were excited. Tonight, there was some cheese leftover from the week’s production to melt over their almost-daily polenta. For once, there were fewer people to give it to. Their padrone was more interested in the butter they’d made that week. The kind village doctor who’d come to check on their nonna‘s back earlier that day had also declined the gift of fresh toma rounds for his services. Il dottore had said payment could wait for another time.

The mother opened the rickety door and let in Colombina. Enrico, the eldest child, immediately realised what the doctor had been referring to. Tomorrow, after a year of coddling and feeding the now-thickset sow, his affectionate companion would be slaughtered. The kind doctor suddenly seemed less kind and more opportunistic. He knew there would be greater prizes to be had from the family soon enough.

A momentary shudder came over the 12-year-old boy, who had witnessed the ritual four years in a row now. Tending to Colombina had become one of Enrico’s main responsibilities on the cascina in the past year. He often went without his already parsimonious afternoon snack to ensure that she grew to desired proportions. Despite the gnawing hunger he often felt when giving up his paltry merenda, the thought of killing her made him wince. Today, she had been playing fetch with him. Tomorrow, she’d be sacrificed so the family could get through the following year. Colombina lay down by his feet, as his mother served him some of the toma-enrichened polenta. ‘She’s no runt’, he thought to himself while gazing down at her. After paying off the doctor with the tripe salami he apparently liked so much, his family would surely have enough to meet their needs…

Before the country to town exodus in the 1950s and 60s, the pig played an extremely important role in Italy’s domestic economy. The mixed emotions in the northern cascina I’ve just described were once ubiquitous all over the country. Inevitably, the contadini would become attached to the omnivorous and highly intelligent animals they’d raised liked family members. Yet slaughtering their beloved pig every winter was also essential to ensuring their families had the provisions necessary to feed themselves.

Wasting any part of il sacro maiale (‘the sacred pig’) would have been unthinkable to Enrico and his family. There’s a very good chance that after slaughtering Colombina, her blood would have been harvested to make one of the many pigs’ blood-based dishes that were once very common along the peninsula such as sanguinaccio and migliaccio. Jellies and gelatin could have been made with her trotters, tail, ears and snout. Lardo and a variety of salumi would have resulted from curing her fatback. Treating the remaining fat, moreover, would have been useful for making sugna (a sealant preservative for food, extremely important before the advent of mass-refrigeration) and strutto (cooking lard, at the time much cheaper and widely available than olive oil or butter).

I can hear you asking, what has this got to do with Carnival, the subject of this month’s edition of Cucina Conversations? Well, plenty. You see, there’s also a very good chance that, after slaughtering Colombina, Enrico’s family went to great lengths to exhaust their larder and meat supply as part of what Gillian Riley has called ‘the last great agricultural party of the year’. Before Christianity was adopted in Europe, it was a common pagan practice to celebrate the passage from winter to spring. Characteristic of these celebrations was gargantuan feasting to invoke fertility before the food shortage induced by nature. Later on, the Church would represent the revelry of Carnival as a period of permitted indulgence before Lent, the forty day period of piety and abstinence leading up to Easter.

Now, if Enrico’s family had been in Piedmont, the dish they would have almost definitely made to mark this period of fleshy indulgence would have been something similar to fagioli grassi. This hearty soup, which literally translates as ‘fat beans’, is best known for being served from huge cauldrons in the streets of Ivrea during the town’s orange-throwing Carnival celebrations. Made by cooking locally-cultivated Saluggia (a cultivar very similar to Borlotti) beans with salamini and rolled pieces of cotenna or pork rind called preti (meaning ‘priests’!), this silky-textured zuppa is the perfect antidote to the chilly air at this time of year. You’ll also find some variations where pork ribs, trotters and other extremities such as tail, ears and snout are used. When made at home, it’s called tofeja for the pignatta-like four-handled terracotta pot it’s traditionally cooked in.

A few notes on preparing these fatty beans. A lot of the recipes I consulted said to cook the soup for over six hours but I found 3 hours (especially after 12 hours of soaking the beans) was enough to get that desired thick and silken consistency. Any longer and the beans would have risked turning completely to puree. Borlotti or even white Cannellini beans can be used instead of Saluggia ones too. My initial intention was to make ‘a priest’ with a rolled piece of pork rind, but I’ve been so busy lately that I completely forgot to order some cotenna in advance from my butcher. How times have changed! Unless the pig’s skin is specifically requested, it gets discarded now. Anyway, he suggested, like some other recipes do, using a few ribs and a trotter instead. My beans would be grassi or ‘fat’ regardless of the part of the pig I used. Seasoning too varied enormously among the recipes I looked up. Some went entirely for herbs like rosemary, sage and bay leaf. Others went for the sweeter notes of spices like cloves and nutmeg. I’ve opted for a bit of both with 2 bay leaves and a cotton-gauze sachet containing some roughly ground peppercorns, cloves and nutmeg.

As for serving, this soup, unsurprisingly, tastes even better after a good rest of at least several hours or, better yet, overnight. It’s really worth being organised for this one. My recommendation: soak the beans on Friday, cook them with your pork on Saturday so you can finally put your feet up come Sunday lunchtime. Somehow, I think Enrico’s family would have done the same…

Ingredients (serves 4 as a primo or piatto unico)

  • 400 g Saluggia beans, soaked for 12 hours and drained
  • 1 pork trotter, shaved and cut in half
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • olive oil
  • 4 pork ribs
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 3 cloves, roughly ground and collected in a small of piece of tightly woven cotton gauze
  • 3 black peppercorns, roughly ground and collected in a small of piece of tightly woven cotton gauze
  • some nutmeg, roughly ground and collected in a small of piece of tightly woven cotton gauze
  • salt, to taste

Method

Bring water to boil in a large saucepan and blanch the pork trotter halves for 2-3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. In a separate heavy-based stockpot or casserole, heat about 2 – 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add pork ribs and sear on all sides until brown. Remove from pot and set aside. Lower heat and add finely chopped vegetables, leaving them to cook until the onion is translucent and carrot and celery has softened. Add drained beans, pork ribs, trotter halves, bay leaves, sachet of spices and salt to pot and add enough hot water so all the ingredients are covered. Bring to boil, cover and cook on low heat for 3 hours or until the soup has thickened, the pork is tender and the beans have rendered. Taste and add more salt if need be. Leave to rest for several hours or overnight. Reheat gently before serving. Buon Appetito e Buon Carnevale!

Still looking to continue the gargantuan feasting? Well, don’t forget to visit my fellow bloggers’ Carnival-related posts then:

Carmen, from The Heirloom Chronicles, has also opted for a savoury preparation with her baccalà fritto con peperoni cruschi (salt cod with crispy peppers). Oh, and I couldn’t help noticing that she has posted about other Carnival-related recipes previously on her blog, such as chiacchiere, chiacchiere ripiene, castagnole and sanguinaccio.

Daniela, from La Dani Gourmet, writes from the town that hosts one of Italy’s most famous Carnival celebrations, Viareggio. She is making bomboloni (hole doughnuts) and ciambelle (ring doughnuts) for us. Daniela also posted earlier this month about another Tuscan Carnival favourite, frittelle di riso. Yum!

Flavia from Flavia’s Flavors, inspired after her recent trip to Venice, is making some yeasted fritters typical of La Serenissima at this time of year, le fritole veneziane. She’s also written previously about Venice and its Carnival celebrations too. Check out this link.

Francesca, from Pancakes and Biscotti, is making another deep-fried treat I’ve always wanted to make, castagnole di ricotta.

Lisa, from Italian Kiwi, is preparing some truly decadent nutella-filled crostoli. Before making the move to Italy, I lived in the Brittany region of France for a year so I couldn’t help noticing that Lisa has a post about one of my favourite gastronomic specialties from the region, galettes de sarrasin or buckwheat pancakes. The French farewell indulgence by making crepes during Carnival.

Marialuisa from Marmellata di Cipolle, is cooking up another savoury dish, polpette di Carnevale al sugo di pomodoro.

I’ve also been busy with Carnival recipes elsewhere this month. Here’s my krapfen recipe for Italy Magazine plus an article I wrote about Pellegrino Artusi and two of his Carnival recipes for The Grand Wine Tour, It’s not Carnevale without deep-fried desserts.

May I also direct you to this interview I conducted with Umbria-based food historian Karima Moyer-Nocchi last August? The oral histories recounted in her book, Chewing the Fat, inspired me greatly when penning this post.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to being back next month with a resource I hope you’ll find useful for this site, not to mention lighter, (dare I say it?) Lenten-inspired fare. A prestissimo!

 

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‘No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers’….

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12 comments

    Lovely story to set the theme Rosemary! When I was researching on this topic and that of Sanguinaccio, I couldn’t help feeling sad, but knowing too well the necessity of feeding a family for an entire year. This soup is one my grandparents rejoiced eating when they managed to receive some pork. Thank you for taking the time to read my other Carnival posts too. Xx

    Thanks Carmen. I hadn’t actually planned on doing this. The urge to write this just came over me this weekend as I recalled my nonno’s stories about raising pigs year after year, becoming very attached to them and then slaughtering them to get through another year. When I read Karima’s book, I realised that the sentiments my nonno expressed were common elsewhere in Italy too when pig-raising was still common among families. As for your other posts, my pleasure! I want to make your bugie/chiacchiere ripiene next year!

    Well done Rosemarie, Pig’s tradition still resists here. And of course the Proverb: Chi si sposa è felice un giorno, chi ammazza il maiale fa festa un anno, is much more current now that a time 🙂 .
    Nella storia che racconti all’inizio sembra di vedere uno dei racconti di mia nonna. E una delle tante volte che il dottore andava via con la pancia piena, se non era il maiale, era un pollo del pollaio.
    Bellissima Ricetta!

    Marialuisa, I was very much inspired by my nonno’s recollections of raising pigs in Calabria. I set my little story in northern Italy but from what I’ve read, the conflicting emotions come pig-slaughtering season were common all over the country. Anche la tua ricetta e articolo per Carnevale mi sono piaciuti tanto. Complimenti!

    Sonia, thank you so much for your help last week, not only with the styling but also regarding the cooking timing. I just could not believe that I still had to cook those beans for three more hours. Italians could learn a few pointers from Mexicans about cooking beans!

    I loved your post and recipe too Francesca. If I wasn’t so tired of deep-fried sweets I’d have made your castagnole already. Thanks for this lovely comment. I hadn’t actually planned on writing it this way. It just came over me as I remembered these stories about pig-raising. Anyway, I hope I showed that the feasting and revelry served a purpose before Lent/the passage from winter to spring. xo

    This soup sounds very comforting and warming. I’ll have to keep an eye out for Saluggia beans. I haven’t tried them. I love the story about Enrico. It’s difficult not to get attached to household pigs!

    You should be able to find Saluggia beans in most supermarkets and markets in Piedmont. Next time you’re here, let’s put it on a list of things to buy and go shopping together! xo

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