Unsurprisingly, most of my family tales have food at their core. No matter if it’s about my dad’s tribulations as a high school student, with only enough lire in his pocket to buy a dramatically small bread roll and three slices of salami for lunch; or about grandma going to the communal mill/oven to make bread, on a bike loaded with branches and bags of flour; or about grandpa, who spent years as a captive in Germany during World War II, and had been dreaming of polenta e baccalà for months even after he made it home. Food permeates all our personal stories and intersects with our collective memories.
From all these stories, though, one truth emerges clear and sharp: the women in my family were and are some really good cooks, able to put on the table meals for dozens after spending long days in the fields, and taking care of the house. Strong women who could prepare nutritious, filling, if only a tad repetitive food out of humble ingredients. Women whom, in part, I didn’t get to meet, and whose cooking I heard so many times about but sadly didn’t get to experience.
The thread between me and these stories is my mum. She nurses dear memories of her childhood – sugarcoated, perhaps? Our mind is good at deleting the bad and keeping the good, and after all, why shouldn’t it? – living with her enlarged family at a farm in rural Veneto. She talks a lot about her grandmother Maria, her mum’s mum, who was the official cook in the house, and a really skilled one. I never met her, but I wish I had the chance to eat some of her food at least once -perhaps in the winter, when temperatures are more suitable to the hearty cooking she was inclined to. My mum still dreams about the rich and flavoursome Sunday meals she would cook: primi piatti such as risotto with chicken gizzards, or bigoi with rabbit ragù, and secondi with roasted poultry or, when in season, pork cuts.
Maria wasn’t known for being timid with condiments, or spare with portions. During the week, when the meal consisted mainly of minestra de fasoi (bean and pasta soup), and polenta, for my family as for any other peasant family in the area, she was heard since the early morning making the battuto with slices of cured lardo and parsley. Old knife in hand, perhaps sharpened once every blue moon by the arrotino, and an even older wood board. Tac tac tac. Until the whole lot of salt-cured lardo had become a cream, and the parsley had mingled within the fat into a bright green puree.
Great-grandma Maria was taking care of the cooking so my grandma didn’t have to. Yet, after Maria’s death, grandma inherited the title of head chef of the house. According to mum, she was a good cook, too, and she had moments when she would make home-made tagliatelle on a whim quite frequently. All in all, she had learnt all the basics – the roasts, the sauces, the pasta dishes – to make the family happy. On top of that, according to my dad, she knew how to make a fantastic lasagna, with the perfect besciamella-to-ragù ratio. I also heard she could make a mean zuppa inglese, with layers of cookies alternated with Marsala-scented custard and chocolate pudding.
I have no memories of grandma’s cooking. Not of the stews, or the ragù, or the zuppa inglese. I got to know all this through the recollections of someone else. I am sure I had the chance to eat some of her food on a Christmas or New Year’s Day of many years ago, but I was too young to pay attention, or even remember. Unfortunately, no written traces remain of these recipes, no charmingly old and suty hand-written recipe notbooks, and grandma is no longer able to pass them down to us. From a point in her life onwards, she have become more and more forgetful every day. With her memory goes a big piece of ours, too, and of our culinary culture, which was hers and her mother’s before her. My mum, growing up during the post-war boom, was little interested in cooking and more interested in eating and living her life. She can guess and remember some, but the gestures, the amounts, the careful steps that can bring a recipe to life – these things are all lost.
Luckily, the most representative dish in my family, including my father’s side (with little alterations, I suppose), doesn’t need much of a recipe. As people made and ate it on a daily basis more or less, in the same way, minestra de fasoi is a familiar dish, whose preparation they must have assisted to at least once in their life. The variations on the basic recipe were few: fresh beans in the summer and early fall, dried the rest of the year; rice or ditali, or broken bigoi as ‘starch’; perhaps some onion or garlic in the battuto; some ribs or bones could make it into the stock after the winter pig butchering was over.
Far from being a daily recurrence in my life – things have changed quite a bit in the meantime – minestra de fasoi (minestra e fagioli or pasta e fagioli, in Italian) has always been something my parents have enjoyed. To me, it seemed odd to get so excited about a soup with beans and pasta, but to them, it must have always been such a warming, nostalgic flavour… Something they can deeply appreciate only now that is not forced onto them every single day.
When looking for a recipe for this month’s Italian Table Talk, dedicated to family recipes, I had hardly any doubt about which dish I wanted to make – minestra de fasoi was an easy choice indeed. Humble, if you like, but very satisfying, nourishing, warming and comforting. Cheap, as well. Perfect for sharing. Before heading to the recipe, let me introduce you to the rest of the feast: Emiko is cooking a special recipe for ragù di coniglio for seasoning pasta- which I am sure would make up for the lost recipe of my family’s rabbit ragù; Jasmine will share the story behind her grandma’s spezzatino, and Giulia will end the meal with a note of sweetness and her grandma’s bigné.
Pasta e Fagioli (Bean Pasta Soup)
Rinse the beans under cold running water. Transfer into a large pot with plenty of water (twice the volume of the beans at least) and bring to the boil. Cook until al dente, drain and set aside. Using a sharp chef knife, start mincing the lardo, until you get a sort of puree. Chop the parsley very finely and then incorporate it into the cream lardo. Do the same with the shallot. You want to end up with almost a pesto of parsley, lardo, and shallot.
Bring the stock to the boil and keep it hot over low heat. In a large, separate pot, heat the olive oil, then add the pesto and fry until the lard has melted and the shallot is translucent. Add 2/3 of the beans, stir using a wooden spoon so that the fat coats the beans. Fry for two-three minutes. Pour enough stock over the beans so that they are completely covered. Simmer for ten minutes or so.
Remove from the heat and puree using an immersion blender. Put back over medium heat, add the rest of the beans and the pasta. Add more stock if needed – you want a dense but still ‘soupy’ texture. Cook for ten minutes, until the pasta is done. Finally, taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly. Serve.