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Heirloom & Nearly Extinct, the Italian Solfino Bean

Posted on 18th Apr, 2012 by Ashley Bartner
fagiolo-zolfino-01

This spring we will plant an antique almost extinct bean, the solfino in our garden. I recently read an article from Le Marche & Food on Scoop.it about a rare flavorful bean from our region of Italy, I was intrigued. We pride ourselves on eating locally, growing our own food & supporting the values of Slow Food, so the thought of preserving a Marche heirloom seed from the dangers of extinction from industrial production was exciting! I contacted La Bona Usanza, the head of the local Slow Food convivium and cooperative that is responsible for cultivating the bean.

In a noisy cafe in a medieval city outside Ancona we were told all about this curious, age-old bean. Solfino is small, round and pale yellow (like sulphur from which it takes its name) with a rich & creamy flavor commonly cultivated in the central Italy (Marche, Tuscany and Umbria) in the past.

The Solfino Bean has a particularly thin skin, creamy consistency, delicate taste and a capacity to hold up well in cooking. Affectionately considered “the rich mans beans,” because they are so costly (25 Euro/kilo) most Marchigiani serve guests just a spoonful drowned in extra virgin olive oil, because as our friend says, the beans are “come oro” like gold. We recommend you serve it just-boiled, still warm, with a healthy drizzling of your best olive oil and a pinch of salt. So simple, so perfect. Peasant cooking with a bean fit for a king!

Years ago when the majority of production was moved from Marche to Tuscany (where it’s known as zolfino), the bean had difficulties thriving as it once did. According to some the problem was the soil, others attribute the lack of knowledge by Tuscan farmers when the real experts were the hand of Marchigiani (explained to us by a few passionate locals). Surely it had to do with the industrialization and mass-harvesting of this delicate bean. The big equipment crushed the fragile stalks and the bean production dropped to near extinction until the cooperative of La Bona Usanza stepped in.

We were offered a tour of the ‘bean factory’, so we downed our caffe and followed the kind gentleman to the unassuming warehouse outside of town. There we were met with white-gloved middle-aged ladies sorting, cleaning, checking & bagging beans. This small scale production was very inspiring & we felt like we too could be part of it. Once we returned home that afternoon we divided up bags of beans for our farming friends in the area & gave them as gifts to grow and literally spreading the seeds across the Candigliano Valley. We are proud to be planting, harvesting, eating & replanting these beans, ensuring a long history of flavorful dishes for years to come!

How to Grow Solfino Beans
“This bean is sown in April and harvested at the end of July; it prefers dry and not overly rich soil as it does not tolerate stagnating water. Cultivation is difficult and somewhat risky each year, as the production of this crop is heavily dependent on the climate and furthermore, many of the operations must be done by hand. Thus, the Solfino Bean is, without a doubt, very good, but at the same time, is very demanding in that it requires much patient care in cultivation. It is for this very reason that it came so close to disappearing altogether. Yet, we can once more enjoy the Solfino, to the great joy and satisfaction of the farmers who have taken to heart this petite bean.” – La Bona Usanza

Food, we love you.

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