I worry about the small kitchenware shop just across the square; that it doesn’t have enough customers and is going to close, and that, if it does, it will be my fault. If it is a particularly intense moment of guilt, I tell Vincenzo how worried I am about the shop we can see through our kitchen window and warn him that, if it shuts, we’ll be to blame, because we didn’t go enough. “So, go” is his usual reply – correct, but so annoying in its straightforwardness that it is not helpful.
But then, later, I do go. The shop is not much bigger than an emperor-sized bed, low-lit, functional, and entering it is like travelling back in time. All three walls have floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves divided into boxes. Those on the left and behind the counter are packed with cleaning products – cloths, scourers, pegs, bags, doormats, foil, loo brushes, moth balls and a large selection of dusters – and those on the right with pots, pans, crockery and accessories (though this feels an inappropriate word for the spoons and strainers in this shop). The shelves on the right also hold a selection of glazed terracotta pots: chocolate-brown on the outside and toffee-coloured within, some shallow, others deep, some the size of cymbals, others smaller than a fried egg, some with a single side handle, others with two – the most beautiful of which is the bean pot.
I have been buying cloths and scourers at this shop for 16 years now. However, if a visit is worry-guilt-induced, I also buy a terracotta pot. And the day I was convinced that the woman who runs the shop had seen me coming out of another shop with a kitchen towel, I bought the bean pot. Now, usually when I buy something impulsively, it is because, in that moment, it is the most essential thing in the world. That day, however, I knew that it wasn’t, and that I probably wasn’t going to use it. That didn’t matter or dent the pleasure of buying a pot-bellied, narrower-at-the-top-than-at-the-bottom, sticky-out-ear-handled fagioliera.
But then I did use it, and have continued to do so. And not just because beans and lentils cook so well in terracotta (it’s something to do with the way the heat is distributed and the temperature maintained, apparently), or because its belly and ears make me happy, but because it is my guilt-assuaging pot. Although, come to think of it, I haven’t been in the kitchenware shop for a while.
White beans and chard (with bacon or eggs)
Of course, any heavy-bottomed pot will do for this recipe.
Prep/soak 12 hr
Cook 1 hr 30 min
400g dried white beans
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 small piece dried red chilli
3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to serve
8 slices of bacon or 4 eggs
Cover the beans with plenty of water and leave to soak for 12 hours.
Drain and rinse the beans, and put them in a deep pan, casserole or terracotta pot. Cover with two litres of water, and add the garlic, chilli, a good pinch of salt and three tablespoons of olive oil.
Bring almost to a boil, then reduce the heat so the pan bubbles gently and steadily, and leave to cook for an hour and a quarter, or until the beans are tender. Make sure the water always comes a couple of centimetres above the beans, so top up with boiling water as necessary.
Meanwhile, trim the chard, cut away the stems and slice them thinly, then cut the leaves into thick ribbons. Add the stems to the beans for the last 15 minutes of the cooking time, and the leaves for the last couple of minutes, stirring so they wilt down. The end consistency should be soft and slightly brothy, but not watery. Taste for salt, stir through a couple more tablespoons of olive oil and serve.
If you want to add bacon, grill or fry the rashers, then cut them thickly and stir into the beans. And if you want to add eggs – fried, soft-boiled and poached all work well – then put one on top of each serving along with another zigzag of olive oil.