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Bean Soup With a Tuscan Touch

March 27, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

What happens when an Italian language expert suddenly discovers that his avocation of cooking for friends is getting out of hand? Simple, if he's Giuliano Bugialli. He simply gives up his career as a linguist and gives in to the inevitable, making a name for himself as a culinary expert and teacher who specializes in the foods of his Italian homeland. His switch in careers means Bugialli spends a lot of time on the road. He is the author of a number of cookbooks on Italian cooking and frequently travels throughout the United States promoting them and teaching classes at American cooking schools. In addition, he maintains a busy cooking school of his own in Florence. Fortunately for his survival, his energy is as boundless as his knowledge of the diverse art of Italian cookery. The Times caught up with him last week between classes at several different local cooking schools and extracted a recipe from him for a Tuscan soup he served to a food writer's group visiting Florence last May. It was a memorable meal-in-one soup with delicious Italian overtones.

When word came that Giuliano Bugialli, one of Italy's better known cooking teachers, was on one of his whirlwind cooking school tours to Southern California, it created a strong sense of deja vu in the heart of this writer. Bugialli teaches cooking classes as a visiting instructor all around this country, and has his own cooking school in Florence, Italy.

Less than a year ago I was among a group of newspaper food editors that he and Eleanor Ostman, food editor of the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press and Dispatch, led on a fast-paced, four-week tour of Italy.

Beginning in Palermo, Sicily, the tour introduced us to the remarkable diversity of Italian cooking. Within two days it became evident that we would live with full tummies and notebooks and increasingly weary brains for weeks to come. Determined that we weren't to miss a single regional specialty, Bugialli rushed us from meal to meal, each one reflecting the way familiar and, surprisingly often, unfamiliar foods were prepared in that area. We learned quickly to limit the bites of whatever specialty was placed in front of us, no matter how good it was. There always was more to come . . . much more! As belt lines tightened, our curiosity and amazement grew.

Each time we crossed the boundaries from one region to another, it was as though we had entered a new country. And, of course, the food experts we visited were absolutely certain that the foods of no other region could quite match the perfection of theirs. They may not always have been right, but it soon became apparent that it was impossible to compare even such universal Italian specialties as pasta dishes. The pastas were different, the seasonings were different and even the choice of additional ingredients was different from region to region. Trying to compare pastas from the south of Italy with those of the north was foolish. Each had its own character that suited its particular district's style of food preparation.

Whenever we stopped in a different area, Bugialli picked up a bottle of the favorite local olive oil. Some were heavy, deep green, unfiltered oils. Others were light, almost lemon-colored, very fruity oils. But, for the most part, they were used in different ways. Ways that were eminently suitable for the types of foods and the methods of preparation indigenous to the area.

By the time the group had laced the Italian boot as far as Bugialli's hometown of Florence, he had a sufficient number of oils to merit a tasting.

We had found very shortly into our trip that Bugialli is a devoted Florentine who quite understandably compares the merits of the rest of his country to those of his sophisticated native habitat. Thus, it came as no surprise that he felt the lighter, fruitier oils of Tuscany really were the only ones worth using. Certainly they fit into this country's current trend to lighter dining; however, there is a lot to be said for some of the heavier, earthier flavors of the Sicilian and southern Italian oils when one is preparing gutsier foods.

The tasting took place at Bugialli's school in Florence, where he offers weeklong cooking sessions at various times during the year. He also is planning to lead a two-week tour this fall that will cover much of the same terrain in Sicily, Puglia and other nearby regions in the south of Italy that the food editors visited. For information on the classes in Florence as well as the tour, write to: Mrs. Bernard Berman, 2830 Gordon St., Allentown, Pa. 18104 or call (215) 435-2451.

For lunch the day the group visited Bugialli's school, he served a typical Florentine soup, Tuscan Bean Soup With Wheat Berries. It was an unbelievably hearty concoction made with dried cannellini beans and soft wheat berries. And in equally typical Italian fashion, he topped each serving with a spoonful of olive oil. Tuscan, of course.

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