Why do green beans in Italy taste so good?
I’ve been feeling lonesome for green beans since we got home from Italy.
Early Tuesday mornings over there, in the piazza just up the street from our building, Marco Stanchini sets up his fruit and vegetable stand. He’s open for business until noon. By the time I get there around 8:00 a.m., the old ladies, some with husbands in tow, are busy bagging their produce.
Marco has a little of everything—most of it nostrano, or local, that is. One week I buy chard and chickory, another week cardone and lischeri, another week fennel and artichokes. Whatever is in season. And there is so much in season.
While I shop, if I need it, I ask the old ladies for advice. Do lischeri call for lemon juice? What combination of field greens you recommend? What’s your approach and cooking time for these gorgeous purple artichokes? There follows a short colloquium.
I also listen as Marco—amiable, jocular, sometimes bawdy—chats up the old ladies. He can seem a little off. One year he told me, in English, that he forgot his wife at the Autogrill (a gas station rest stop chain on the autostrada). He said it twice, then flashed me a buggy-eyed look and a conspiratorial smile, waiting while I parsed the sentence. Left her, he finally explained in Italian. I left her there. Another sly smile.
“Lui,” my wife’s old aunt says, “e’ matto da legare.” Trans: That guy should be tied up.
“Yes, Zia,” I say, “but he has green beans.”
This past fall I bought Marco’s beans every Tuesday for a month. They were tender, deep green, perfect. Five minutes in boiling water, plated with a light drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. How can something so simple be so good?
Some things are just better in Italy, my wife says. Espresso, for example. Mozzarella, Nutella. Green beans.
These are delicate little guys. In Italian, green beans are fagiolini—little beans. Once I’m back in the States, of course, I want them. There are desires that know no bounds. Trolling the aisles in local grocery stores, I’m reminded of the colossal challenge of delivering decent fresh fruit and vegetables in titanic quantities to far-flung regions. Exhibit A in the people vs. industrial food is, naturally, the grocery store tomato, a red baseball that looks invitingly tomato-esque but in taste and texture is a disappointment, if not an all-out travesty. Exhibit B—on my evidence list, at least—is the green bean. Grocery store beans are usually long and woody, green witches’ fingers, pale facsimiles of the genuine article. Long on string, short on taste.
For a short time in the summer it’s possible to get a nostrano bean here in Detroit. From someone’s garden, if you’re lucky. Also, in July green beans begin to appear in the local farmers markets here. They come stems-on, a good sign. Size, color, and texture matter; the smaller the better; I look for dark green, preferably slightly velvety to the touch. I’ll ask the vendor, Can I break a stem off? hoping for a crisp, moist pop. I’ll ask a vendor, Can I bite one? assessing the crunch factor and stringiness. One summer I found a girl, an actual farmer’s daughter, who really had the goods. I went back four consecutive Saturdays and was happy.
Then, this past summer, a falling off. I bought farmer’s market beans 3-4 times. Not so good. Even those from my farmer’s daughter. I’ve begun to think of a good green bean as a rarity, a delicacy in the U.S.
So imagine my surprise when I took a chance on Trader Joe’s the other day. It was an act of desperation. In the green section of the store I noticed haricots verts. Bagged in shiny clear plastic were shiny de-stemmed beans; little guys, a product of Guatamala, with a use-by date. Also, on the label stapled to the top of the bag, this announcement: READY TO USE. The packaging bothered me, the verbiage really bothered me. I picked up a bag and thought, what the hell. A hail-Mary pass.
I took them home and “used” them the way I would Marco’s beans. Five minutes in boiling water, plated with a light drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. They were good.
Just a fluke, I thought.
The next day I went back and bought more, took them home and used those beans. They were good, too. Very good.
No, let’s not get carried way. Not very good. Good enough.
Who wants good enough? The terms connotes an attitude of compromise, surrender; it is a condition of mild disgruntlement the contemporary consumer experiences in the vegetable section of the modern supermarket.
Some things are just better in Italy, my wife says. She’s right.
Marco’s beans come from Santarcangelo di Romagna, a little town 20 minutes from our apartment. You eat them within a day or two of their pickage. While we’re there, we can be rigorous about local wine, local seafood, local produce. I’m grateful to Trader Joe’s for sourcing the beans, though I have an idea that chain-store sourcing is primarily about reassuring the American consumer he is not being poisoned and that conditions of production do not too egregiously violate human rights. Joe knows where his pretty good beans come from. Good enough for Joe, good enough for me.
The irony here is that green beans are native to the New World. Fagiolini, the phaseolus vulgaris we love, arrived in Europe from Central America in the sixteenth century. The haricot vert probably takes its name from the Aztec “ayacolt.”
Local beans. We’ll make do.