Beans, in their many varieties (approximately five hundred), first appear in Italian cookery at the end of the 1500s. This, of course, is excluding the black-eye beans which have been present in Tuscan cuisine since the most ancient times, indeed, they were certainly known to the Romans, the Greeks, the Dorians but have today, however, almost disappeared; these beans originate from the tropical regions of Asia and Africa. The other types of beans significantly appear after the discovery of America (1492), this being a fundamental event for our gastronomy which it enriched with many new products. Florence, the artistic and commercial centre, was one of the first cities not only in Italy, but also in Europe, to taste the beans which were presented in the most sumptuous banquets. It would seem that they were introduced to Tuscany by Pope Clemente VII who, in turn, had received them from the Emperor of Spain, Charles V. In time, as they were grown in our countryside, they earned popularity on the most modest dining tables, to enter once and for all into every-day cooking where they still dominate, undisputed, today.
The most widely-spread and well-known qualities of beans are: 'cannellini' beans (similar to white kidney beans), white beans of a medium size with a fairly thin skin and long in shape; butter beans, which are white, large, flat, and considerably fleshy, rather than being particularly flavoursome. In Tuscany, these 'fagioli di Spagna' are known as 'fagiole' and are eaten in July and August, fresh from their pods; and finally 'borlotti' beans (similar to cranberry beans), streaked dark red in colour, of medium size and of a roundish shape.
The favourite type of beans and, therefore, the most widely diffused in Tuscan cookery is the 'cannellini' variety. As well as having a very high nutritional value, these can boast the advantage of having a very thin skin and a particular, delicate flavour which can be appreciated in any type of preparation, both when they are used fresh as when they are dried.
HOW TO COOK
The cooking of beans, for the Tuscans, is an art which has been handed down over the centuries. In the times when kitchens had fireplaces (something which, in the countryside, started to die out in the nineteen fifties) with a fire which was used to warm saucepans and copper pots, the hot embers of the fire which, were hidden beneath the ashes, were used to cook the beans. They were cooked very slowly and for a long time in very little water, in a flask without its straw covering placed on top of the ashes, taking the heat from the embers: this cooking of the beans was almost a rite, a ceremony. Only in this way would they remain intact, soft and well-cooked. Beans should not ever, in fact, become "mushy", but they should stay properly whole, like the beads on a rosary.
Nowadays - flasks and the embers of the fireplace having practically disappeared - there are pots made from terra-cotta which have a bellied shape, with a narrow neck and a lid, which allow for the correct method of cooking over a very low heat, in the water which never boils but - as they say in Tuscany - 'trembles'. The heat must remain constant and without interruption, to avoid the risk of the beans remaining hard or of them breaking.
HOW TO EAT
The first way to enjoy freshly cooked beans is to put them into bowls together with their own cooking broth and to dress them with olive oil, a little salt, a little pepper and the addition - above all a custom from countryside - of a little finely chopped onion, perhaps picked from the vegetable garden at the last moment; a plate of beans - when the lack of methods of transport forced people to walk long distances (and not only in the countryside) and when the consumption of physical energy applied to everybody - was accompanied by a loaf of bread which was dipped in the beans' cooking water and sprinkled with some oil.
But there are many ways of cooking beans; in Tuscany, the most well known are the 'fagioli all'uccelletto' (literally 'beans with little birds'), a name which probably goes a long way back to the times which, for the most part, ended in the first decade after the last World War, when the owner of an estate was also owner of all the livestock living on his lands; that is, owner of all the animals, not only of those reared, but also of any wild animals, the hunting of which was res domini fundi (property of the gentleman of the estate), and, therefore, reserved only for the owner. The farmer substituted the birds with beans, cooking them in the same way and with such a good result that, in a short time, the custom diffused to the towns, and - forgetting the real birds - survived the changes made to the hunting laws. Still today, the 'fagioli all'uccelletto' are a much appreciated dish which - if accompanied by sausages - can be considered as a complete meal.
But many different dishes can be made with beans: from 'crostini' (garnished, toasted slices of bread) to the famous Tuscan soups, where our 'cannellini' beans always make an appearance.
AN HISTORICAL CURIOSITY
In the nineteen twenties, when Tuscany as well was permeated with the torments of Futurism which dictated law in every field, as far as cooking was concerned, many of the major artists - the first amongst them all being Ardengo Soffici - made valiant "defences" which asserted the attachment to traditional cooking. In particular it is memorable that at the 'Circolo degli Artisti' (Artists' Society) in Via de' Servi, a banquet of beans was served, and during which beans were honoured with the singing of a hymn: «Ave o fagiolo / divinamente fiorentino / cui natura diede forma di cuore / ...» ('Hail thee o bean / divinely Florentine / to which nature gave the form of the heart') and, after having entrusted it to the Tuscan olive oil, and having baptised it with generous quantities of Chianti wine, the hymn concluded: «Leviam fratelli di mensa / l'inno secolare: / Ave o fagiolo.» ('Sing out loud brothers of the dining-table / the age-old hymn /Hail thee o bean').