In 2002, Ralph and I made our first visit to Italy to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.
I owned Sister’s Italian Food and wanted to source out new recipes and products. We rented a villa in Tuscany where I could shop and cook locally. Our villa was located deep in the Tuscan country side in a little town called Bucine. We were about 45 minutes south of Florence on the A1.
Our villa was one of the restored out buildings on a large estate. Several hundred years ago, it probably housed livestock! Happily by the time we were to sleep there, it had been transformed into a beautiful apartment of heavy timbers, stone floors, large wooden shutters and a spectacular fire-place.
The kitchen was completely decked out and ready for some serious cooking. Our plan was to dine in every other day. There was no way that I was going to visit Italy and eat my own cooking the whole time!
We arrived in Bucine late in the day. We were tired from our long journey so, we made the unfortunate decision to lay down and take a short nap. We awoke at 8 pm. It was pitch black and we were starving! We found our way to the tiny town and were surprised to find it bustling with shoppers. We were not aware of Italian eating patterns. Families typically have their evening meal after 10 pm.
Our first stop was the butcher shop. It was fantastic! This tiny little store – I really want you to visualize ‘teeny’ – was crammed full of screaming Italians. My ability to speak Italian stops at anything other than food related words. I had no idea what all of the commotion was about. Turns out, that’s just the way you buy your meat in Italy – with passion! So, picture a store full of friends and neighbors, all happily talking over one another and a woman with a translation dictionary standing at the back of the shop trying to get someone’s attention. Not gonna happen… not until the shop door opens and in walks the tallest man this town had ever seen. It was so funny. Ralph had been looking for a parking spot while I was to have been buying some veal. When he walked in, the whole shop went silent and collectively looked up at my tall specimen of a husband! Everybody started welcoming him – clearly he was visiting – and I was pulled up to the counter where I was waited on like a duchess. We bought two thick milk-fed veal chops and some local salami. The butcher wanted us to sample all of his cured meats. All we needed was some bread and wine and we could have had dinner on the spot!
Every day we drove to a different Etruscan town where we would spend the morning roaming through the cobblestone streets. We would book a late sitting for lunch and spend a couple of hours enjoying the local cuisine. One of our most memorable noon time meals was in Cortona at the superb trattoria La Grotta. I always know that we have made the right restaurant selection, when we are surrounded by locals! We were seated next to a table of four workmen. Trying not to be conspicuous, we ordered everything that they had on their table - only half! They noticed what we had done and thought that it was wonderful. One dish that we had not seen on their table was the fagioli cannellini al forno. The workmen were adamant that we try this beloved local dish – so we did! Sheer bliss…
I have never been able to find good quality dried cannellini beans in New Brunswick. Instead, I substitute a local dried yellow eye bean with perfect results.
There is no exact recipe for cooking dried beans. It depends on freshness and quality.
Yellow Eyed Beans – Tuscan Style
250g dried yellow eyed beans, soaked overnight in cold water
1 plum tomato
3-4 garlic cloves, whole and unpeeled
A bunch of fresh sage
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
5-6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Place the beans in a large bean crock and cover them with water. Leave to soak overnight, then, when ready to cook the beans, drain and rinse them.
Place the beans in a large, thick-bottomed pan and add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Add the tomato, garlic and sage and bring to a boil, skimming off any scum from the surface. Lower the heat to a simmer and continue cooking uncovered until the beans are tender, adding more water when needed to keep the beans covered. The cooking time will vary depending on the freshness of the beans; it can take from 45 minutes to 1½ hours.
When the beans are ready, they should be tender and the skins soft. Season with salt and pepper.
I serve my best extra virgin olive oil with the beans and encourage my guests to pour generously. Speaking of which, my best olive oil has just about run out.
Time to replenish!
See you in a couple of weeks…