Midst all the opulent and overly ornate works of art from the Baroque period, hangs a modest but well-known painting, Il Mangiafagioli, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), depicting a quotidian scene, a peasant sitting down to a simple lunch of bean soup, onions, bread, a vegetable pie and a jug of red wine. The Beaneater is as Florentine as Brunelleschi’s dome, given that the Florentines were often called by the taunt, ‘beaneaters,’ especially in bygone days.
The painting captures that moment when ‘the peasant is just raising a spoonful of beans to his lips, only to stop, surprised, by the intrusion of the viewer’, and in one sense, it is remarkably like a modern photo, a snapshot of a working class scene. At the same time, the table setting could be the work of an early food stylist. In modern times, food stylists bombard our senses and shape our taste from every media quarter. Note the crisp white linen and the well composed meal, the wine on the table and the strategically placed bread. You would expect to see a rustic wooden table in this naturalistic vignette, something that the modern food stylist would prefer too. (Have wooden planks used as food styling props become clichéd yet and why is good linen shunned in the modern world?) This bean eating peasant has a fine knife and glassware, a generous jug of wine and serve of bread. Perhaps he is an upwardly mobile peasant of the 1590s about to become a member of the white meat-eating class, despite the dirt under his nails.
Interestingly, up until modern times, beans were regarded as peasant food,
‘Social codes in Baroque Italy extended as far as to food. According to contemporary thinkers, foodstuffs like beans and onions, which are dark in color and grow low to the ground, were suitable only for similarly lowly consumers, like peasants.¹
If this Beaneater’s repast were placed before me today, I would be overjoyed and would probably pay dearly for it too, as I once did, at the delightful restaurant, Il Pozzo, in Monteriggione, Tuscany, where a bowl of bean filled Ribollita, served with a side of raw onions and good Tuscan bread cost me a large wad of lire. Other than the price, the meal hardly differed from the one depicted in Carracci’s painting of 1590. Things don’t change much over the centuries in Italy, a conservative country, particularly when it comes to food, recipes and styling.
This modern-day beaneater, Mr Tranquillo, was bribed with a bottle of Yering Sangiovese 2010, to pose for this ‘painting’. A bowl of bean soup, good bread and a glass of wine is a lunchtime reward for hard work.
How to cook dried white beans and eat well for one dollar.
This recipe will give you enough cooked beans for a very large soup for a crowd or enough to divide and freeze for later soups or dips.
500g dried cannellini beans
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled but whole
4-5 sage leaves, and/or a small branch of rosemary.
60 ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to serve
2 teaspoons or more of salt
- Place the beans in a very large bowl with plenty of cold water. Leave to soak for at least 8 hours or overnight.
- Drain the beans and place in a heavy-based saucepan or cast iron pot with the garlic, herbs, olive oil and 2.5 litres of water.
- Bring to a simmer on the lowest heat setting and cook, covered, very gently until the beans are tender. Do not add salt and do not boil. Salt hardens beans and prevents them from softening and boiling splits the beans.
- Remove any scum that rises to the top of the water. When the beans are soft and the cooking water is creamy, add the salt and some freshly ground pepper towards the end of the cooking. Test and adjust seasoning. Depending on the age of the beans, this could take two or more hours with slow cooking.
- Use the beans to make a simple cannellini bean soup. Start with a soffritto of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked gently in olive oil, then when softened, add some vegetable stock and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cooked beans and creamy cooking water. Heat for a further 5 minutes, taste and season. Consider pureeing half the mixture with a stick blender and return the puree to the pot. Serve in a deep bowl over grilled slightly stale sourdough bread and drizzle some good oil on top.
L’impostore ed ll Mangiafagioli