Every Ash Wednesday in the town of Gradoli a peculiarly-named event takes place. The Pranzo del Purgatorio or ‘Purgatory Lunch’ is a communal meal organized by the Confraternità del Purgatorio, whose members go about town collecting ‘fat’ donations like prosciutto and other salumi from locals, items that are then auctioned in the town piazza to fund the lunch. The humble, centuries-old menu consists of fish from nearby Lake Bolsena, olive oil and wine produced in the area, and a special variety of stewed white beans. These beans, in fact, have for so long been associated with Gradoli and the brotherhood that they’ve come to be known simply as Fagioli del Purgatorio—purgatory beans.
There’s one way to cook the small, soft-skinned, no-soak purgatory bean (300+ years of tradition will cement tastes, I guess). The recipe, like the Gradoli lunch event itself, is meant to be what Italians call magro, meaning lean, as it is the first meal of the Lenten season. So, when making my own batch of purgatory beans, I did my best to get in the spirit of the thing by beating back a decadent urge to toss a few chunks of pancetta into my soffritto. Instead, I followed the recipe I found repeatedly on the web. The quantities below are for a very large pot of beans.
500 grams of dried fagioli del purgatorio
3 large garlic cloves
4 fresh sage leaves
2 bay leaves
½ a white onion
3 Tbls olive oil plus more for drizzling
salt & pepper
water (or….see below)
Peel and dice the onion and garlic. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot. Cook the onion and garlic until soft then add the sage and cook for another minute. Add the dry beans and enough water to cover them plus about 1.5 inches. Now add the bay leaves, stir well and cover the pot. Cook for 60 to 90 minutes, checking them regularly. They are ready when the consistency is to your liking. When the heat is off, add a level tablespoon of salt and stir thoroughly. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh ground pepper.
(Incidentally, I used some savory leftover chicken broth for about half of the cooking liquid. Don’t tell!)