White beans of Liguria

Fagiolo Bianco di Conio beans, soaking up water over 12 hours

Hidden behind cardboard boxes of polenta and rice and alongside flimsy plastic bags of dried pasta lay a smallish cotton bag full of magic beans, known in the Italian province as Fagiolo Bianco di Conio, White Beans of Conio. This drawer sits in a cupboard in my Italian kitchen, in a small town about an hours train drive south of Turin. This past weekend, I finally pulled the bag out into daylight, opening and carefully letting them spill out across the table, tumbling up against cookbooks opened at pages flush with recipes and inspiration.

I’d bought this bag at a citrus festival held some 12 months ago in Finale Borgo, a medieval, seaside town with streets stretching northwards into steep, craggy hills popular with climbers and mountain bikers and south to the tourist beaches lining the Ligurian coast. The beans are grown locally around small, nearby towns of Conio, Badlucco and Pigna.

Cooking tips for Conio beans

For dried beans, a 12 hours soak in water will soften them up ready for cooking. My 500g were boiled in water with a bay leaf with a generous pinch of salt stirred in at the end, as recommended by food writer Rachel Roddy (on Instagram as @rachelaliceroddy) in her book, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. I then took around 150 gm and fired them in a good glug of Ligurian olive oil, diced white onion and finely chopped garlic. Preparation of traditional Ligurian dishes involves different preparations, with each Ligurian town and village having a typical dish: in Pigna the symbolic dish is goat and beans, in Conio the ‘Zemin’ uses beans, vegetables and meat to make a broth, while in Badalucco the beans are used to make “Friscioi” or pancakes. UK-based Italophile Julie Friend (@kentcooking) suggested using the cooked beans as a bed for a vegetarian haggis I had defrosted during a freezer cleanse! It was the perfect match. While Genoa-based writer Enrica Monzani (@asmallkitcheningenoa) offers a recipe with chickpeas and chard soup (Zemin di Ceci) with chickpeas more freely available and a good substitute for the harder to find white beans of Liguria.

Zemin and zimino upacked

Zemin is the Ligurian dialect word for Zimino, a base soup or stew made with these Ligurian grown beans and traditionally containing chard or spinach. Zimino is also enjoyed with fish, such as cuttlefish and salt cod (see picture), and with other beans, such as chickpeas, and meat, especially offal and tripe.

Below, from right: beans and haggis, white bean soup with roasted pepper and croutons; more white beans!

A potted history of the Conio, Badalucco and Pigna beans

These beans are protected by the food and farming activist movement Slow Food through its Presidia programme because of their rich agricultural and cultural heritage and increasing rarity. The local Presidium group says bean pods are harvested for around one month from mid-September and that dried beans, such as the ones I had packed in the bag calling to me from the dark, dusty recesses of my cupboard, are available year-round.

Ancestors of these beans reached Liguria from 17th century Spain and found ideal growing conditions in the Nervia, Oneglia and Argentina valleys, where the climbing plants thrived on dry-stone terraces. Subsequent ‘natural selection’ produced three different climbing varieties, cultivated around the three inland towns including Badalucco and Conio. Conio beans are white, fairly large and kidney-shaped, while the other two are oval and slightly smaller, especially the Pigna variety. The most fertile land is the highest, where the soil is loose and well drained and the calcareous and mineral-rich water flows from springs, says Slow Food.

Salt cod, a staple ingredient across Italy and especially Liguria and Piedmont

If you can find Ligurian olive oil, famously sweet with a peppery aftertaste, dribble in a little for however you use them for a little kick and deeper, richer flavour. Ligurian olive oil is my first choice when making pesto, another Italian kitchen classic from Liguria.

Views of Finale Borgo, below.

All images (c) 2020 The Lemon Grove

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.