Green bean pesto

Long before it was fashionable, the war against waste was a necessity. From people’s store cupboards, where recipes were born of need and what was available, cooking habits were codified and consolidated by the oral tradition, sometimes spilling into notebooks via jotted transcriptions of a neighbor’s secret recipes. Saving and reusing food has become little more than an attitude today, but once upon a time it was entirely customary to borrow a pan in order to scrape out the last traces of fat. There was no shame in it; it was survival, at its tastiest.

Italian cuisine is full of these masterpieces: riso al salto and ribollita, to name but two. And then, to crown them all, green bean pesto.


As often happens in Tuscany, a perfectly normal thing goes by another name. The rest of the country may chafe at this snobbism, but they are very happy to enjoy what it denotes. In Tuscany, beans are known as baccelli. As everyone knows, baccelli should refer to the green sheathes that hold the actual beans inside, but in this inimitable region the word has latched onto the beans themselves. Once opened, they leave behind a heap of fresh, fragrant shells, bright and crunchy – these are what the rest of Italy means by baccelli. It’s easy to imagine how difficult it must have been for families of yesteryear to chuck them into the pig trough, not least when there wasn’t enough bread on the table. Hunger and ingenuity have always made formidable companions, and so in the cookbooks of popular Tuscan cuisine we read about baccelli pesto, served over pasta. It’s not really a pesto, we should say; it’s a sauce. But let’s go with its romantically rustic name, and move on.


Wash the beans and chop them into pieces. Blanch them in salted boiling water for a couple of minutes and then immerse them in cold water. Put a handful of pecorino cheese in the blender, along with a few almonds – I love them generously toasted – and two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chopped beans, plus two or three ice cubes and a mint leaf, and a clove of fresh garlic. Blend the lot until you have a thick sauce, which you then put in the pan where your spaghetti – done al dente – should be waiting. Pour on a little bit of oil and a touch of the water in which you cooked the spaghetti. Stir it all together until the sauce is evenly spread through the spaghetti. Then serve up, sprinkling a little pepper and cheese over the whole ensemble.


And to drink? La Solatia Pinot Grigio!