Signora Begnini

Cortona Market, October

I’ve been buying fruits and vegetables from Signora Benigni for as long as I’ve been coming to the Saturday market in Cortona. Once the fruttivendolo part of the market occupied all of Piazza Signorelli and the Benigni family was one among many stalls where you could pick over seasonal vegetables and compare prices.

But as the Cortonesi have become more accustomed to driving down to the Coop and loading up the car, the market has diminished markedly. Now the Benigni stall is almost the only one left, relegated to a steep slope above the Duomo, although there are still plenty of porchetta stands, cheese vendors, and even one lonely man selling fried and fresh fish. (Tuscans are not big fish eaters, especially here in the hills, but they flock to buy his fried squid so they don’t have to cook it at home.)

Yesterday I waited a good 20 minutes for Signora Benigni while she filled the orders of a pair of little old ladies who were buying enormous quantities of dried beans–cannellini, flat piattelle, ceci (chickpeas), lenticchie (lentils), and borlotti (the red-streaked ones)–kilos and kilos of them. I thought, by the look of them, they might be nuns stocking a convent kitchen, but no, it turned out they were gentildonne from Rome who come to Tuscany every year at this time to buy beans for their winter pantry.

Benigni farm stall Cortona market

Benigni farm stall, Cortona market, October 2012

What a country this is, where people care so much about food they’ll drive 200 kilometers for leguminous excellence!

The Benignis themselves don’t raise the beans. They buy them from a farmer in the Casentino, the high valley that runs north from Arezzo, and I’d be willing to bet that’s where they get their wild fennel pollen too. I went to the market intending to buy a hundred grams of the stuff, but the good signora, ever attuned to my desires, whipped out a sack full of the most aromatic fennel pollen I’ve ever encountered, so perfumed it seemed to fill the open-air marketplace. “This is what you want,” she said placidly and I had to agree.

wild fennel pollen

Wild fennel pollen

Which is how I ended up spending 70 euros (about $95) for a little over a kilo (2.2 pounds) of the fragrant stuff.

What will I do with it? Well, it’s essential for any Tuscan pork dish, including fegatelli, the chunks of liver wrapped in caul fat and sprinkled with fennel pollen before grilling on the fireplace embers. And it goes well with duck and in bean dishes. But I think I’m going to put aside a good chunk of it to give away to the students who are about to arrive for an olive oil week at Villa Campestri–a little piece of Tuscany to take home with them again.

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  • Reply Judith of Umbria October 14, 2012 at 10:48 am

    It truly is a great thing. I don’t like fennel or fennel seed/weed, but the pollen and blossoms I use often. One year my daughter came and bought a lot. She packaged it in adorable spun aluminum bottles and gave them with a few recipes to those on her Christmas list.

  • Reply Laurie Constantino October 14, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Lovely produce, the tomatoes and squash especially. I have vivid memories of buying kilos of wild harvested greens, perfectly cleaned and trimmed, at the Cortona to prepare for Christmas Eve dinner. Sad to think of produce like that disappearing from the market.

  • Reply leslie land October 20, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Thinkin’ about all those dried beans… puts you part way to the Boston (Maine!) baked you were threatening over on FB. Expect you’re a tad busy just now, but before winter sets in in earnest, how about an experiment: Italian dried beans New England style; soldier or yellow eyes al fiasco (sp?); just to see some legumes in translation?

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins October 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Great idea, Leslie. Italian beans New England style/New England beans Italian style. You’re on for this wintah. I’ll bring back some legumes, including Tuscany’s famous zolfini, which I think are exactly the same as our Maine sulphur beans though the Tuscans claim they’re pre-columbian. Likely story!

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