Beans Cooked in a Tuscan Jar
“First you need good beans.” The good advice of Elizabeth David always goes straight to the heart of the matter.
We arrived back in Tuscany a week ago for what should be a few good months of family time, visiting friends and research, all peppered with good doses of eating and drinking. No sooner had we arrived at my mother in law’s house, weary from traveling halfway across the globe, did the pantry and kitchen doors open wide in invitation that I spotted them. Good beans.
I’ve always wanted to try this recipe, the one that Elizabeth David calls Fagioli alla Fagiolara, an unusual name for a recipe that doesn’t seem to exist in Italian anymore but which she says is named after the rustic, earthenware jar that the beans are cooked in. The recipe is perhaps better known by a slightly different name and different receptacle – fagioli al fiasco, or beans in a glass flask. A classic Tuscan dish. Both involve cooking the beans directly in the ashes of a fireplace.
The kitchen or living room hearth (in my mother in law’s case, her attic), where a large, waist height fireplace is on to not only warm the room in cold weather but also for cooking bistecca, for instance, or for roasting pork ribs or grilling bread. While you’ve got the fire burning away, you may as well throw this on and let it cook for hours.
It just so happens that my mother in law has a fagiolara. Or rather, a pignata, as it is also called in the centre-south. It’s a large, terracotta jar or urn with two handles and smoke marks along all the sides from many a turn in the fireplace.
Into a bowl went the dried cannellini beans discovered in the pantry to soak overnight in plenty of water (use a bowl much bigger than you think you need). The next day, following Elizabeth David, the beans were drained and poured into the jar with half an onion, celery, whole cloves of garlic, fresh sage – and although she doesn’t mention it, fresh rosemary. A lid was fashioned out of some foil and the lid of another small saucepan. In a corner of the fireplace, where the fire wasn’t too strong but not too weak, the jar was nestled between flames and there is sat for the entire afternoon, about 5 hours. To say they were delicious is an understatement.
“They are at their best when freshly cooked, and eaten almost before they have cooled,” she advises, again, wisely.
Humble and simple, but flavoured heavily with slow cooked garlic and herbs and eaten with fruity green olive oil and a hearty slab of toasted Tuscan bread (“dried out in the oven”, instructs Elizabeth David), there is hardly anything better.
This recipe, with the addition of rosemary, is based on Elizabeth David’s recipe for fagioli alla fagiolara, a recipe that is famliar to those who know fagioli al fiasco. It was written by David in 1966 but went unpublished until it became part of the collection put together by Jill Norman in 2000 for Is there a Nutmeg in the House? A favourite read.
Beans cooked in a terracotta jar (Elizabeth David’s Fagioli alla Fagiolara)
- 250 grams dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water
- ½ medium onion
- ½ stick celery
- 2 whole cloves of garlic
- 2-3 sage leaves (you could also use bay leaves)
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1.2 litres of water
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Once the beans have been soaked overnight, drain them and place them in a terracotta jar (or a terracotta pot, if you don’t have the jar) with the rest of the ingredients except the salt and pepper. Cover and cook slowly, letting it simmer for about 2 hours. Check occasionally to make sure the liquid has not evaporated all the way. About 20 minutes before finishing cooking, add the salt.
Pour the beans out onto a serving dish and remove the onion and celery. Season liberally with freshly ground black pepper.
Elizabeth David recommends serving with some raw, finely sliced sweet onion, fruity olive oil and a few drops of wine vinegar or over a slice of toasted bread, rubbed in garlic. Both are excellent and this also makes a wonderful side dish to roast or grilled meat or fish. You’ll be finding an excuse to eat this with anything and everything.