Top of my “must-attend” list during the recent Terra Madre Salone del Gusto event in Turin were two workshops on legumes and olive oil. They were part of a regional series, so they were focused on different areas of Italy. Both were part of the Slow Beans initiative. These culinary workshops were focused on the beans more than the olive oils—there was no independent tasting of the oils, for example—but there was no denying the critical role played by the extra virgin olive oil in each dish.
North-Central Italy with Vittorio Fusari
The first one with Chef Vittorio Fusari from Pont de Ferr in Milan showcased North-Central varieties. Chef Fusari gave some bean history and an overview of the planetary and health cost of high meat consumption, making a compelling case for the virtue of legumes. As nitrogen fixing crops, they are especially valuable in the agricultural picture. He believes that beans are a critical tool for breaking the cycle of overconsumption of meat.
La Cucina Povera—the Poor Kitchen—has long relied on legumes as a staple. Eaten in traditional combinations with grains, beans and lentils provide high quality protein at a very modest cost. This is true of the environment as well; in addition to their soil building capability, Chef Fusari pointed out that beans are a relatively water-thrifty crop.
There is much to be learned from la Cucina Povera. Advice from nutritionists and guidelines for the environmentally aware all point to reducing consumption of meat. The pairing of extra virgin olive oil with the humble bean creates deliciousness that we can feel good about eating!
Central-South Italy with Peppe Zullo
The second olive oil and legume workshop featured beans and olive oil from Central-South Italy and the cooking of Chef Peppe Zullo, Bowner and chef of the self-titled restaurant in Orsara di Puglia. Chef Zullo’s dishes were simple, each relying on just a few ingredients. Johnny Madge—EVA coordinator in Italy—put it well when he said that where Fusari eloquently presented the intellectual side of the issue, Zullo made the sensual argument. Passing around ingredients like two bunches of fennel, cultivated and wild, he encouraged the participants to smell the herb and appreciate the differences. Each dish was a tiny string quartet: a handful of excellent elements working together in harmony.
We learned in the introduction that 2016 is the International Year of Pulses (that would mean beans to us Americans), and clearly Peppe Zullo is very much in his element working with them. Two of the dishes were made with legume pasta, a product he has recently developed. These pastas contributed an intriguing dimension to the flavors of the dishes as well as presenting an opportunity for those on a gluten-free diet.
Chef Zullo speaks of “simple food for intelligent people,” and his cooking delivers. He believes that the future of food will be fresh products: good vegetables, good beans, good extra virgin olive oil, good bread. Each dish he presented honored its ingredients in the combination, never over-complicating the mix or displaying excessive intervention from the cook. And as all lovers of great extra virgin olive oil know, the addition of the right olive oil serves to unify, amplify and elongate flavors—and catapult a dish to greatness.
These two workshops made a compelling argument from both the head and the heart for the place of legumes and extra virgin olive oil in an enlightened diet. These foods have such an affinity for each other, creating something that is much more than the sum of the parts. The pleasure of simple, delicious dishes made with good olive oil and humble beans is something to celebrate; the Poor Kitchen can make us all richer.
Legumes and oils featured in the North-Central Italy workshop:
The Gialèt bean is yellow with a delicate skin and flavor, traditionally used in soups and bean creams. The Pigna bean is a white bean, traditionally served simply boiled with Taggiasca olive oil or with boiled octopus. The Red Kidney bean from Lucca has an intense flavor, not even needing salt, and often appearing with Tuscan kale or spelt in soup.
The featured olive oils were Gaudenzi’s Quinta Luna (Leccino and Moraiolo) from Umbria, Alle Camelie Organic (Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo and Pendolino) from Tuscany, Le Passioni Organic (Grignano and Razara) from Veneto and U Giarún (Taggiasca) from Liguria.
Legumes and oils featured in the Central-South Italy workshop:
Lentils of Santo Sessanio, one of the earliest Presidia from Abruzzo, are small and extraordinarily flavorful lentils, traditionally enjoyed cooked simply in a soup with herbs and dressed with extra virgin olive oil. The Cannellino Dente di Morto—it gets its name from its resemblance to the tooth of a skull—grows in volcanic soils near Naples and also has a Presidium. Arsoli Bean is another white bean that has its own Presidium, this one located in Lazio. The bean is thin-skinned and soaking is optional; it is traditionally served in a soup with tomatoes and pasta. The Cortale Bean is from Calabria and famous for its rich umami flavor. The Fava Bianco di Carpino is an heirloom broad bean from Puglia.
The olive oils in this workshop were Tomasso Masciantonio (cultivars Intosso and Gentile di Chieti) from Abruzzo, an organic monovarietal Ravece from Maria Ianniciello grown in Campania, a DOP Canino monovarietal from Cerrosughero in Lazio and Torchia from Calabria.