As is always the case with the oldest recipes, the origins of its name are lost in the mists of time. Even at the time of famous food historian Pellegrino Artusi, nobody was sure why this dish, a staple of poor cuisine and one of the most accessible sources of protein in legumes, was called as it is. Artusi, in fact, referred to them as “Fagiuoli a guisa d’uccellini” (birdlike beans), providing us, not for the last time, with more a piece of poetic interpretation than a real scientific explanation.
Among the hundreds of readings of the name, one is particularly interesting, because it crops up elsewhere on the tables of the poorest families. An example would be the Neapolitan dish, spaghetti with “fujute” clams – a word that means flown or fled, for only the ghosts of the clams remain, in the marine smell that the imaginative chef manages to keep in the dish.
It’s the same with our fagiuoli, and let’s not forget that sly letter u that modern usage tends to leave out, just like with nocciuole. It might well be the ghost of a nobler dish that somehow disappeared, or became a shadow of itself. The “birds that have flown” theory is fascinating: we prepare the dish as if we were going to cook thrushes and teals, but in the end we are only dealing with beans.
Here’s what we need: boiled cannellini beans, tomato passata, garlic, chilli, plenty of sage, and of course, the indispensable Tuscan olive oil, salt and pepper.
We start by flavouring the oil, first with garlic and then with sage, removing them as soon as they start to brown. Add the cannellini beans and leave them to absorb the flavours, then add the passata, the chilli and sprinkle on the salt and pepper.
And there we have it!
“Beans like birds”