I remember my first fresh pea. Ejected from its pod, I inspected it, lying in the palm of my hand with its siblings. I’d had frozen peas before, tasteless and of a much darker hue than this one which put the pea in pea-green. The taste, more like a fruit than a vegetable, took me by surprise. His siblings didn’t last long.
This is a dish that my English mother learned to cook from my Venetian grandmother. As I child, I was very fussy about the vegetables that I’d eat, but I don’t remember ever refusing to eat or having a problem with this dish. On the contrary, I’d look forward to winter evenings in order to have the opportunity to eat it.
While not strictly a Christmas dish, pasta e fasioi (which means pasta and beans) is definitely in the category of a winter warmer. Perfect for a cold December lunch, or dinner after a long day Christmas shopping. Although variants of this recipe are found in other regions of Italy—using the standard Italian name, pasta e fagioli rather than the Venetian fasioi—it is firmly rooted in Venetian cuisine. The kind of beans used come from the New World, and were unknown in Italy until Venetian merchants introduced them in the seventeenth century. And if made properly, it uses fagioli di Lamon which are product of the Veneto and have IGP status.
Similar in appearance to borlotti beans, Lamon beans are considered to be of a superior quality because of the strict and traditional way in which they are cultivated. For example, they must be grown from seeds which are no more than three years old, and which were themselves cultivated in Lamon, situated in the foothills of the alps, in the Venetian province of Belluno. It’s interesting that in Tuscany where the main legume grown is the chickpea, this dish is made with them, rather than beans.
The dish itself consists of a hearty bean soup, in which dried pasta is thrown and cooked at the last minute to add some carbohydrate. I use dried tagliatelle, which I break into small pieces, because my mother (and by association my grandmother) did. It’s also the version noted by Venetian nobleman Ranieri da Mosto (father of the famous Francesco) in his excellent book on Venetian cuisine. He notes however, that the pasta used varies in different parts of the Veneto and I’ve even heard of this dish being prepared with rice instead of pasta.
I use a thick piece of pancetta with lots of fat in my version. However, tradition calls for cotica, which is basically pig skin. However, this is becoming increasingly hard to find (I searched in three of the most important butchers in Venice to no avail). You could use a piece of thick pork belly to substitute. It doesn’t need to be chopped, as it’s not eaten but removed at the last minute after it’s imparted all its flavour to the dish.
As I note at the bottom of the recipe, there are ways of making it vegetarian or even vegan if you wish. However you make it, you will find that it’s one of those dishes where the overall taste and effect is much more than a sum of its parts.
- 300g / 1 1/2 cups dried lamon (or borlotti) beans
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 1 stick celery, finely diced
- 50g / 1 1/2 ounces fatty pancetta
- 1 tablespoon lard
- 1 litre / 2 1/3 pints water
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 200g / 6 ounces dried tagliatelle, broken into small pieces
- pepper to taste
- Soak the beans in water overnight.
- Drain and rinse the beans.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan.
- Add the onion, carrot, and celery and fry gently until the onion is translucent.
- Add the lard and allow to melt. Continue to cook for another five minutes.
- Add the pancetta, beans, water, and salt. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
- Remove the piece of pancetta and discard.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove half of the beans and liquidize them, using a hand blender. Add a little of the cooking liquid if necessary until you have a smooth paste. Return it to the main pan.
- Add the pasta and cook until it's al dente according to manufacturers instructions.
- Adjust seasoning with pepper.
- Place in serving bowls and add a little chopped parsley and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
- This dish can be made vegetarian by leaving out the pancetta and substituting unsalted butter for lard.
- This dish can be made vegan by leaving out the pancetta and lard, and using a non-egg pasta.
- To give this dish a Tuscan flavour you can use dried chickpeas instead of beans.
One of the things that surprises most English-speaking tourists, when coming to Italy for the first time, is that in restaurants main dishes don’t come with vegetables. That’s not to say that Italians don’t eat vegetables with main dishes, but you have to order them separately. You find them on the menu in a little section of their own called contorno, which translates approximately as side dish.