Several years ago, Bill and I spent a week in Menton, France, a small town on the French Riviera. Like many places dotting the Cote d’Azur, it is both port, and tourist destination. Part of the Alpes-Maritime department, Menton is at the sheltered base of the Alps, with a unique micro-climate favorable to citrus. Lemons abound! There are beautiful homes and lush gardens built into mountainside.This community has a charming pedestrian-only town center, pretty beaches, and mosaic-like promenades along the waters edge.
And while it does have an Old World aristocratic beauty, it doesn’t possess the same haute nature as its neighbor, the chi-chi Monte Carlo. We found it be more family-oriented, and mainly French and Italian families at that.
It was a lovely place to be. We were lucky to find a room in a modest but pleasant hotel across from one of the smooth-stoned beaches. Mornings began under the canopied patio with a carafe of coffee, baskets of croissants, butter, and Bonne Maman preserves. Days were spent floating in the buoyant Mediterranean, or exploring the Old City, or hiking up the lavender-laced hillsides. What a view! Sometimes you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began.
Menton is only a couple of kilometers from the Italian border. One evening, after dinner, I said, “Let’s walk to Italy.”
In no time our stroll took us to the douane, the abandoned checkpoint separating the countries in the pre-EU era. The toll-gate style structure looked like it had built in the early Sixties, and you could imagine the lines of cars, people with passports in hand, getting their stamp of approval to enter.
We walked a little further towards the Ligurian town, Ventimiglia. Sometimes, crossing borders, you sense an immediate difference between one country and the next. But not so here. There was a melding of French and Italian sensibilities.
I was reminded of our French walk to Italy when I made this tasty dish. It, too, blurs the Franco-Italian borders.
Have you cooked with Flageolets? These delicate beans are French, cultivated immature kidney beans that are white and pale green in color. They have a firm yet creamy texture, and are the bean of choice for cassoulet. What I’ve created is a sort of Provencal version of Pasta e Fagioli, flavored with spring green vegetables from the garden, seasoned with fresh thyme, and flecked with savory bits of crisp pancetta. It’s simply delicious-delicieux-delizioso!
PROVENCAL SPRING PASTA AND FLAGEOLETS
1 cup dried Flageolets, rinsed and soaked for an hour
3 cloves Garlic, minced
1 small white Onion, chopped
2 T. Olive Oil
a few sprigs of Fresh Thyme
Heat the olive oil in a 3 qt. saucepan and saute the garlic and onions for a couple of minutes. Season with sea salt. Stir in the flageolets, and let them get coated with sauteed mixture. Add water, covering the beans by 2-3 inches. Stir in a few sprigs of fresh thyme, cleaned tops of the leeks (see below), cover, and simmer for 1 1/2-2 hours, checking periodically on water level. The beans will become cooked throughout, and will be soft, but intact.
SPRING VEGETABLE-DITALINI PASTA
1/2 bundle of Swiss Chard, cleaned and sliced thin, into ribbons
1 Leek, cleaned and chopped (reserve cleaned tops to season bean broth)
1/2 lb. Sugar Snaps, chopped on the bias
Red Pepper Flakes
1 cup Ditalini (or another small pasta shape) “small thimbles”
A good Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, for finishing
Fresh Thyme for garnish
A few pieces of crispened Pancetta
Warm the olive oil in a large skillet and saute leeks, chard, and sugar snaps. Season with salt and red pepper flakes. Saute until chard is collapsed and tender, about 5 minutes.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and combine with sauteed vegetables.
When Flageolets are tender, remove from heat. There should be a little cooking liquid in the pot.
Combine beans and pasta in large bowl. Stir in bits of pancetta. If you are vegan, omit this step!
Drizzle with a good finishing olive oil, garnish with fresh thyme and serve.
COOK’S NOTES: You can find Flageolets under the Roland label, (at Whole Foods) or order them, along with other fabulous heirloom beans, from Ranch Gordo. You can substitute cannellini or navy beans if you like.