The Italian Bean Pot
Updated: Aug 31
Cookware contributes much to the success and overall flavor of a dish. Their design results in a chemical reaction caused by heat energy, which is transferred from your stovetop to your ingredients by way of the different kinds of cookware used. One of the most beneficial and utilitarian of all cooking vessels is the Italian bean pot. The unique property of of a bean pot with its narrow neck encourages convection cooking by forcing steam back down into the center of the vessel increasing cooking efficiency. Beans are said to be decidedly more tasty when cooked in a clay pot. It locks in the flavor, aroma, nutrients and moisture and cooks faster with less heat. Other ingredients and cuisines benefit from this type of cooking. I have seen recipes from lamb to octopus and cultures across the globe that use this ancient method of cooking.
In southern Italy this clay cooking pot is called a pignata (apulian) and the design and utility hasn't changed much since the days of the Roman Empire. The pignata is part of la cucina antica, the ancient way of cooking. Nestled in the embers of a fire or entombed in a brick oven, the general consensus of cooks is that it renders everything you put into it completely delicious. Primarily used for cooking beans and lentils; stews, ragus and soups also benefit from this style of cooking but the unique properties of of the pignata (pin-nyah-ta) make legumes decidedly more tasty. The pot and its placement in the ashes of the fire or in a temperature controlled oven allow the contents to barely simmer in a delicious liquor of oil and vegetable juices. The delicate legumes absorb the liquid which also evaporates back into the pot resulting in a tender, unbroken product with a deep rich taste.
Good beans or lentils cooked in a pignata or rustic earthenware Tuscan jar are one of the culinary joys of Italian cooking. One of the classic recipes for beans prepared in this manner is Fagioli alla Fagiolara or beans cooked homestyle in the manner of house of the contadini, or farmers who grew the beans. Dried cannellini beans were soaked overnight in plenty of water and cooked with onions, garlic, sage or bay, rosemary and olive oil then cooked in the clay urn. You might also see this recipe as fagioli all'ucceletto, beans cooked with garlic, sage, pepper, olive oil tomato sauce and sausages. Those of you who are familiar with Italian might ask "where are the ucceletti (birds)" in this dish. Gastro-historians believe that although the origin of the name is unclear, it may stem from the use of sage and pepper used in the dishes which in the Tuscan tradition were also found in recipes with game, such as birds.
Tuscans are big bean eaters and in the making of this dish, if the clay bean jar was unavailable, then why not use a vessel that was readily available. The beans and ingredients were put in an old wine bottle (fagioli al fiasco). The flask was sealed with a piece of cloth or a plug of straw and placed over the embers to cook overnight.
Recommended: Legumes and Beans from Casa Corneli