Nonna turned 90 this month. Which means, amongst other things, that she has witnessed the world transform itself over a span of 9 decades. NINE! How do you celebrate the birthday of someone who has been around for the rise and fall of 42 Italian Prime-ministers, the inauguration of 8 popes, 1 World War and the birth of their first great-grandchild?
Well, it seems only right to give her exactly what she asks for. “Brakfaste. Con il pannecake.”
She uses the word thoughtfully and with intention. While there is a term for “breakfast” in Italian (prima colazione), the two are hardly interchangeable. Traditional colazione in Italy usually consists of nothing more than a dry biscuit and a caffè latte, if that. When I stayed with a second-cousin in Florence a few years ago, she took great care to stock the pantry with what she thought would cater to my North American sensibilities – sugary cereal, pre-packaged “croissants” and individually-wrapped crostate – each specimen coated with the faint aroma of factory plastic. At some point in our co-habitation, she came to understand that I’d much rather have the traditional “S” biscuit and coffee than ready-to-eat factory pastries. (There’s a handful of processed foods that have a special place in my heart – probably quite literally – but this stuff? No grazie.) I imagine that most contemporary Italian families have things like yogurt and toast in the morning. But for the older batch, breakfast still isn’t emphasized as a meal. Not even on weekends.
Here, however, we’ll get together on occasion for a familial Canadian-style breakfast, with scrambled eggs and pancakes and bacon and filtered coffee. And despite it not being something my grandmother grew up with, she has come to fully embrace its merits, amongst them, baked beans – ones made Québec-style, with brown sugar, a healthy dose of molasses and a few sizeable chunks of lardon. Sure, it’s not a skinny dish. But it’s not like you’re eating it everyday. It’s for special occasions, hearty gatherings…like 90th birthday parties.
The recipe below has been swiped from my mom’s collection. It’s based on the traditional fèves au lard (a.k.a “bines“) that you can find on most breakfast menus in Québec. It may not be the most delicate-looking, but it is a thing of beauty, I assure you. Through the beans simmer quite a long time, they are still toothsome; the sauce is pleasantly sticky, sweet and tangy. Everything a good baked bean should be.
Mom’s Baked Beans (Fèves au lard)
Serves 8-10 as a side
*Note: give yourself several hours for these – they are not hard to make, but it takes time to make good ones (see details below)
- 1 pound dried navy beans, soaked overnight
- 5 cups cold water
- 1/2 pound salted pork belly cut into 1″ pieces
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 tsp cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1/2 cup dark molasses
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 1 tsp salt
Cover the beans in cold water and soak the beans overnight. The next morning, strain and rinse the beans. Add the beans to a pot with 5 cups of fresh cold water. Boil for 30 minutes. Do not add salt to the water as this hinders the cooking process. Transfer the beans and water to an ovenproof casserole. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover and bake in a 250ºF oven for 7-8 hours.