My mother Alison was born in 1938 in suburban Melbourne, into that generation known as war babies, the children that spent their early years albeit far from the horrors of Europe but nonetheless under the blanket of food rations, bomb shelters and the BBC war broadcast. My Grandfather Jim was an engineer and my Grandmother Marjorie a seamstress, and their three girls grew up in a classic middle class Presbyterian environment where absolutely nothing went to waste, every last sock was darned, and the utmost care was taken with household items that my generation takes for granted. As kids my sister and I were almost embarrassed by mum’s war-baby frugality, her obsessive re-use of everything, and the constant flow of left-over dinners and home made clothes. Forty years later and I am the one carefully folding paper bags from the fruit vendor to pack sandwiches into and making one meal stretch into two. It became a part of me because that is what happens – we become our parents – especially the parts we deeply admire about them.
The Italian ethos of eating what is in season, of creating food from tip to the tail of plant or animal, and of finding a way to cure/dry/preserve all of the bounty that nature has bestowed on this particularly geographically blessed nation – is what I deeply love about living in Italy. The importance of legumes – and the central role they play in the real mediterranean diet – is the part that most touches the daughter-of-a-war-baby part of me. Old ways for a better future point to eating less meat and more beans, and I think the 40 something Alice is different to the 30 something Alice and that satisfies me. When I am at Lubriano, where I walk to my fruit vendor Luigina to buy largely Lubriano grown produce and local wine, I can buy local varieties of beans like the Fagiolo del Purgatorio in a paper bag (which I will carefully fold for re-use), to soak overnight and cook the next day, to perhaps store for a few days in recycled jar, I feel content in a sort of daughter-of-a-war-baby kind of way.Leonardo reminds me every once in a while that, without beans, there would have been no Renaissance. Varieties of pulses had been grown in Europe since ancient times but new varieties of beans, along with the potatoes and tomatoes that had arrived from the Americas, provided a welcome boost to the middle ages diet; the protein injection artists and artisans needed for the cultural rebirth. Beans: cannellini, borlotti, fave, zolfini, are a solid pillar of the Italian table from north to south and Pasta e Fagioli is made all over Italy in different guises. The soffritto base and the beans are the blank canvas, and each cook gives their pasta e fagioli its own personality with the inclusion of pancetta or not, the amount of tomato concentrate or passata, the use of vegetable stock or solely the bean water. There is the cook that tosses in an old rind of parmigiano, the cook that prefers short pasta, and the cook that breaks sheets of lasagna all’uovo into roughly cut pieces. When borlotti are in season, with their gorgeous mottled pods, the soup has a heightened creamy nuttiness, but whatever the nuances the result is always that everyone’s favourite version is always that made by their mother or grandmother.
I distinctly remember the first time Leonardo cooked it for me, and I can admit now to having thought it sounded a bit monotonous in both tone and flavor (before having tried it). Leonardo, though, is an excellent maker of soups, and knows how to build the layers of flavor which render them wonderful. In the case of Pasta e Fagioli, which is sort of half soup half pasta – it all starts with the soffritto which is cut very finely and with great care. Into the soffritto can go a little diced pancetta, which adds depth, and a couple of sprigs of rosemary which balance beautifully with the pancetta.
It is best cooked in a terra-cotta cooking pot, and is often served in terra-cotta bowls, which add to the rustic charm. Served in just about anything it is like a giant hug from a grandfather; warm, satisfying, uncomplicated but never boring, and just what you feel like on certain days.
Pasta e Fagioli
1 small brown onion – finely chopped
50 g pancetta – diced
1 stalk of celery – finely chopped
1 carrot – finely chopped
2 sprigs rosemary
2 cloves of garlic – peeled and squashed
4 tablespoons tomato passata
250 g borlotti beans (equivalent of 500 g cooked beans, 400 g fresh beans)
200 g egg lasagna broken into rough pieces (or other pasta)
1 litre vegetable stock
Extra virgin olive oil – 2 tablespoons
Salt and pepper – to taste
Soak the borlotti beans overnight. Rinse and cook covered in plenty of water for an hour, adding a pinch of salt half way through the cooking process. They should be cooked al dente – they will continue to cook as the soup is assembled.
While the beans are cooking make a simple vegetable stock by simmering 1500 ml of water with a carrot, black peppercorns, a stalk of celery with leaves and half and onion.
Very finely chop the vegetables. In a terra-cotta cooking pot or a good heavy based pan fry off the pancetta in one tablespoon of olive oil, then add another tablespoon of oil and the chopped onion, carrot and celery, reduce the heat and gently sauté until the vegetables are translucent. At this point add the tomato sauce and stir well, and then add a litre of vegetable stock and the cooked beans (keep the beans’ cooking water) and cook over a medium flame for about half an hour.
Some people puree all of the soup but I like to remove just one third of the soup, blend it quickly with a hand held blender before returning it to the pot. Bring the soup up to the boil and add the pasta, which can be any kind but broken lasagna al’uovo or tagliatelle work nicely, while dittalini (little fingers) are also popular. Make sure the soup is liquid enough to cook the pasta, add extra bean water or vegetable stock if you need to lengthen it.
When the pasta is al dente everything should be given a good 5-10 minute rest before serving. Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.