Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
The name is musical and surely doesn’t sound like a Vermont heirloom bean, but indeed it is, with a history approaching 100 years of being grown in Barre. It just goes to show that there really was some cultural diversity in Vermont in the 20th century, even though, at least when I was growing up, cultural diversity was not much discussed or encouraged.
I received this seed from Alan LePage, a market gardener in Barre, who received it from one of his neighbors, Constantino “Stan” Conti. Stan’s parents brought the seed with them to Barre sometime between 1914 and the mid 1920s when they emigrated from the stone-quarrying village of Lettommanoppello, in eastern central Italy, to live in the granite-quarrying town of Barre, central Vermont.
“Rampicante” is Italian for “climbing” and this is a rampantly climbing pole bean for sure. I’ve had some jump their 10 foot poles and climb into an apple tree. This vigor extends to their pod production as well – the flat Romano pods average 10 inches long at maturity, and if kept picked it will keep bearing until the frosts come. But, what is amazing about this bean is the superb flavor and crisp texture, even when the pods reach 10 inches and more. I can understand why the Contis brought the seed with them and continued to grow it in Barre all those years.
Conti’s Marconi Romano behind some “wild” (non-bulbing) perennial fennel.
The “Marconi” part of this bean’s name was probably given as a tribute to Guglielmo Marconi, an inventor known as the “father of radio.” He was evidently widely celebrated in Italy with many streets in towns and cities all over the country named after him. There is a Marconi sweet pepper, and a quick internet search reveals Supermarconi Romano pole beans, Supernano Marconi Gold, White-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans, and Black-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans being offered by seed vendors. If anyone knows anything for sure about the history of "Marconi" beans in Italy, I’d love to hear about it.
I find it interesting that there are no Romano beans, or anything resembling them, listed in The Beans of New York. Published in 1931, Beans of NY was part of a WPA project to catalog vegetable varieties known in the Northeastern US at the time, and it’s pretty thorough. I’m sure there were many other folks besides the Conti family who brought Romano-type bean seed with them from Italy when they came to the US in the early 20th century, but evidently these beans were not well known outside the Italian-American community.
Romano beans as a category are snap beans, stringless, with flat, wide succulent pods. They are great examples of the plant breeding proficiency of Italian gardeners and farmers. Consider that many vegetables now considered quintessentially Italian – tomatoes, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), peppers, and corn – had their origins in the New World and were unknown in Italy until the 16th century
While its culinary aspects are excellent, for a bean, Conti’s is a bit of a nuisance to get seeds from. What makes it so tasty – the pods’ ability to stay tender and crisp – means that the pods are not inclined to dry down well and protect the seeds from mold at the end of the season. Plus, the seeds are thin-skinned and prone to splitting open in the drying process. Our autumns tend to be cool and damp, so the pods with mature seeds have to be brought inside and dried with gentle applied heat. I hang them in net bags near our wood furnace, and turn them daily. The extra attention is well worth it. This is one of the finest tasting green beans you’ll ever come across.