In a nutshell: A rare Tuscan bean that is highly sought out by chefs and legume connoisseurs for its delicate flavour and creamy texture - once tasted, never forgotten!
This legendary legume, Zolfino, derives its name from its pale yellow, slightly sulfurous colour - Zolfo means sulphur in Italian. With its thin skin, which makes it very digestible, and creamy texture, this small bean is suitable for all kinds of dishes. For Tuscans (infamously known as mangiafagioli or bean eaters), it's revered as the finest fagiolo and is grabbed at farmers markets and food stores whenever available.
Thank the Emperor Charles V, credited with introducing the legumes to Tuscany following the European discovery of the New World, for first giving some fagioli to the Medici Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici) and inspiring their love affair with the humble bean in all their dishes. Today, along with the widely available cannellini bean, other rare varieties (like Sorana, Tondino di Severino, Toscanello and Coco Nano) are also cultivated.
Hard to grow, cultivating the Zolfino bean requires patience and passion, and it is only grown in certain areas of Tuscany, low to the ground in small bushes that are never irrigated. They like poor soil and cannot survive in lower-lying areas, because their shallow root system cannot tolerate any water-logging. The beans are sown in April, often on terraced land under olive trees, so that any water drains away between the stones of the drystone walls.
In Tuscany, you find them as the classic accompaniment to Bistecca alla Fiorentina or on bruschetta drizzled with fruity and intense extra-virgin olive oil. Traditionally, they were cooked al fiasco in a bottle or flask on the embers of a fire overnight. Today, a special earthenware pot is used for this cooking method. The favoured method is still low and slow in a pot for several hours with the water barely simmering, with sage and olive oil of course!
In Florence, you can eat this delicious bean in all the city's classic eateries, including one our favourites, Trattoria Cammillo, just off the Ponte Vecchio, and now in London at Emilia Restaurant where chef Alice Norman and her team are using it in dishes like Squab Pigeon Saltimbocca with Zolfini beans and sage.
How to use:
- Its thin skin means that you don't have to be rehydrate in water for as long as other bean varieties.
- Use in a classic Tuscan ribollita soup.
- A simple salad dressed with little more than the fruitiest extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and black pepper.
- Try with prawns, chopped tomatoes and herbs.
- Add to all kinds of soups and stews.
About Il Cilegio
Close to the famous Medieval walled town of Monteriggioni in Tuscany, with its imposing turrets and walls, lies the Azienda Agricola Il Cilegio. Owned by the Pattaro family, who have been farming 140 hectares of land since 1952. Today, almost half their land is given over to olive groves and vineyards where they produce excellent Chianti and olive oil. The rest of their fields are cultivated with wonderful beans and pulses, local grains and wheats, all stoneground in their mill and sold to appreciative bakers and chefs in nearby Siena and its surrounds. A farmhouse restaurant is always busy in the summer months with locals who come to eat the classic, rustic Tuscan dishes made with the farm’s produce and is well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.