The picturesque town of Cortale is located between the rivers Pilla and Pesipa at 400 mts above sea level between the plains of Lamezia Terme and the isthmus of Catanzaro. The pleasant valleys with beautiful chestnut forests and beech trees gradually gives way to the pine forests that reach altitudes of 800 mts above sea level. Thanks to a fresh and fertile soil and plenty of water it is possible to grow wheat, corn, vegetables and especially the famous bean from Cortale.
Father Giovanni da Fiore already in 1691 already referred to the Cortale village of Maida and looking back to the sixteenth Barrio extolled the territory with fertile wheat and other crops, excellent for grazing and for hunting. John Arthur Strutt in his adventurous journey in Calabria in 1841 as a good artist extolled the forest landscapes, the gastronomic delights and the plentiness of dishes from Cortale, citing among the crops the pulses the traditional “Lupini fields”.
The rural landscapes of the place are taken by the famous nineteenth-century Cortalese painter Andrea Cefaly. The agriculture Italy after the early post-unification was described by the so-called “Enquiry Jacini” held by Senator Jacini (on behalf of the government between 1877 and 1882), who in his descriptions after the making of the Memoirs of Senator Antonio Cefaly (1850-1928), describes the Cortale beans: “They grow such as to allow the export to neighbouring countries, potatoes and a quantity of white beans, commonly called kidney that are of exquisite flavour and easy to cook”.
Cefaly in 1880 writes: “The peasant farmer of this commandment (…) only eats during the day maize bread and for dinner eats together with his family a herbal minestrone soup with mostly 250gr of potatoes or french beans and very little or no seasoning. “In 1933 there was a first description and classification of the Cortale beans thanks to A. Mountain in an article entitled “The bean cultivation in Maidese” which was published in the “Calabria farm”.
In addition to the climbing varieties he describes the “finest dwarf varieties”: the Ziccarella, the Kidney, the Ammelatella white, or white Tonda Grappo, the Yellow and the Colostrina. In 1934 Mountain writes: “The Feeding (…) which is essentially composed of beans, squash, potatoes and scariole boiled and seasoned with olive oil and salt and prepared in a large bowl”.
Indicated in the texts of herbaceous cultivation as “Cortalese bean” the autochthonous bean actually consists of different native varieties grown as always in Cortale. The ecotypes have been naturally selected over the years by local farmers and the cultivation of leguminous plant is proudly handed down from father to son.
Beans whose biodiversity is still preserved against the erosion of genetic diversity of the more “commercial” bean started in the 40s. Denominations, definitions and bean varieties were determined in time and held by local farmers whom with intensive two-year rotations were unable to obtain four products in two years: corn with beans (or potatoes), corn, beans and Italian ryegrass. Even today some people in greenhouses experiments to try to obtain a double annual harvest.
The “beechnuts” thus is considered the emblematic product for the entire area, recently has been enhanced because of the brand De.CO (Protected Designation of Communal Origin) assigned by the communal administration led by the mayor (and agronomist) Francesco Scalfaro.
The five variarities of beans De.Co.
The “pose” varieties (perhaps from Phaseolum?) locally grown are as follows: Reginella bianca (called “ammalatèddha” the most delicate and susceptible to diseases), Reginella gialla (sometimes called Coco little yellow), Cannellina bianca (or Rognonella with the form of a “kidney” and in Calabrian dialect “rugnùni”), Cocò gialla (called “limunìdu” because of the colour that recalls the lemon) and Cocò bianca.
In principle the varieties Reginella e Cannellina can be counted in the category of the Italian white beans called “cannellini”, while the yellow varieties probably belong to the “zolfini” group of beans both of ancient Tuscan origin. The first three are the most diffused and which require around 60-70 kg of seed per hectare. These beans are sown at the end of June and harvested in late September.
The variety “Cocó” are belated and more resilient and are sown the first days of June and harvested in October. Among the early and late varieties there is a difference of about 20 days in terms of full growth. The yield for all varieties are about 15Kg per hectare.
The processing of the Cortale bean is traditional. When the pod is ripe the plants being small in size are harvested by hand. These are put together in bunches and hung on wires or on close fig trees. When the piles are almost completely dry after about two weeks they are laid in the ground in thin layers to avoid rotting due to moisture still present in the green parts.
When the plant is completely dry then comes the manual work: the pod remains attached to the stem but the pod opens easily making the bean jump out. After the manual separation between the remains of the plant and the grain is done through the movement of the sieves (or “crivi”) under wind as it was done for wheat. At this point the manual selection (“spulicatùra”) of the best product is done, which traditionally involved the entire family and friends eagerly waiting for the autumn event to choose with satisfaction the best beans chatting next to a comforting fire.
After the beans are laid in the sun or in a greenhouse tunnel full of towels for the drying process. This enables them to remain intact even for two years and not to change colour if not affected by the rain. To prevent the eventual development of the bean weevil (“Papuzza”), often the beans are kept in the freezer for 4-5 hours in order to kill any eggs that could be present. They are then placed back in the sun and then kept in jute bags, boxes or baskets.
In the case of very large cultivated fields the harvested of plants is done by hand but the separation between the plant and the bean happens through a cutter which acts as mechanical beater: the plants using a shovel are placed under the rotating plates on one side, on the other side the full bean is. The collection and subsequent selection for complete drying will take place manually. The product is mostly sold in bulk directly from the farm or at local markets at a price that ranges from €5 to €8 per kg. The well-known Borgia (CZ) exhibition held yearly on November 4th is where the bean usually reaches higher prices.
The establishment of the brand De.C.O. and the introduction of special packages in addition to the activation of promotional and marketing strategies (including the event “La posa e la seta”) hopes to bring greater profitability and product development as it has happened in other products of communal designation of Calabrian Origin. Even in Cortale thanks to the initiatives is getting closer to the cultivation of traditional bean involving even young adults gathered in the cooperatives.
Large or small, light or dark, beans have always been appreciated in the kitchen, in the sixteenth century were considered a royal food and were part of the rich gifts that noblemen exchanged on special occasions. A value that has been lost over the centuries, but not in the peasant culture where the bean as an ingredient of simple cooking is now fully rediscovered. From a gastronomic point of view the “fagiolata” is therefore a Cortale traditional dish: the bean festival which counts with abundant Fagiolate is usually conducted in December. The fagiolata is prepared in the classic terracotta pignate (pot) where the beans are boiled with water and salt. Each variety has different cooking times.
Generally the Cannellina white variety and Cocó yellow that when cooked becomes red are eaten cooked. The Reginella variety is also flavoured in the pot and can be cooked with short pasta. The Cannellina instead is usually prepared with the scilatelle pasta (type of pasta popular in Calabria). The Cocó white and yellow are also used for the “mushroom and bean soup”. In general the taste of the Cannellina variety is more delicate while the yellow varieties are more digestible.
The Cannellina (or Rognonella) because is more delicate due to its shape was purchased mainly as a gift to friends and family. A recent study on “The Granella pulses in Calabria” (2010) published by ARSSA in collaboration with the University “Mediterranea” of Reggio Calabria and the ENEA, classified and characterized some of the varieties of bean from Cortale and determined the sensory evaluation and characterization which are deduced interesting peculiarities.
The variety Cocò white is the one that requires less cooking time (60 minutes). Visual examination in terms of resistance to cooking the bean tends to desintegrate while the colour remains. From the taste point of view the skin dissolves quite easily, the pulp tends to become soft, the taste is something between sweet and savoury, the seasoned taste is exactly between sweet and herbaceous and the broth is creamy. To this we can add an index of high digestibility and an equally high level of overall organoleptic satisfaction.
The Coco yellow instead has a medium to long cooking time (100 minutes). Has a more resistant cooking characteristics remaining basically intact and the colour becomes its traditional red. On the palate the skin tends to remain tough and with firm texture. The natural taste is between sweet and savoury, when seasoned the flavour is sweet and herbaceous like the Coco white. The broth is instead watery. The elderly cortalesi remember the taste of the traditional bean tasting mode: using a large leaf and using the bulb of the red onion from as a spoon!
Further useful research initiatives are underway by the Department BIOMAA of the University of Reggio and by the Institute of Plant Genetics, CNR of Bari. Today, Mr. Rosario Fruci energetic farmer in his sixties tells us that he “cultivates the beans in Cencello road in the town of Cortale since childhood, and before his father did it carefully sowing the inherited varieties in quantities of 135Kg for approx. 2 hectares of land.
He is obviously proud of their traditional production and the fact that other farmers in the area draw from his experience are motivated to periodically renew their crops. A concrete example of admirable and generous protection of biodiversity. An important example among many genuinely unconscious and spontaneous, traditional of the Calabrian peasant culture.