Sixth in an occasional series

SAN GIOVANNI VALDARNO, Italy -- "Every place in Italy has its own bean," said Viviano Venturi, a food sleuth. "The question is to get people to come across and give them up."

He speaks with the determination of an earnest cop tracking a missing person. Venturi is a vineyard owner and food activist. He searches for strains of Italian vegetables, fruit, fowl and domesticated animals that once populated Tuscany but have all but disappeared under waves of mechanized agriculture and the abandonment of marginal farmland. It is laborious work. He and his band of investigators rely on word-of-mouth reports of rare strains, and they use old records, archaic genealogical studies and even Renaissance paintings to verify the discoveries.

No food is too humble to win attention. Lately, Venturi's been on the bean trail. "You never know when you might find a discarded bean. It's like panning for gold," he said.

In Italy, a bean is not a bean is not a bean. It's true that one variety, the cream-colored cannellino, is a well-known staple at dinner tables. It grows in valleys throughout the country, is packed by an array of food processors. It is served simply with oil, garlic and sage, or with tuna and onions, or with ham, pork rind or sausages or just on toast or with pasta cooked in a bean soup -- pasta e fagioli is especially popular in Tuscany, Rome and the Neapolitan south.

In the days when many Italian mountain hamlets were little stony worlds unto themselves, farmers boasted of their own particular beans. Some were distinguished by their shapes -- round or kidney -- or their tough or delicate skins or tastes that ranged from bland to sweet to slightly bitter. The "Little Bean" of Lake Trasimeno is so prized it was served only on special occasions, like weddings. In Liguria, lovers of sweet beans hail the pigna, conio and badalucco beans. The sight of the thin-skinned Tuscan pink can bring gasps of delight from Florentines, who are so devoted to beans that they have earned the nickname mangiafagioli, the bean eaters.

Beans were the poor man's meat. They were often grown in rocky, rough places inhospitable to cows or even sheep. Therein, according to Venturi, lies the story of the danger to Italian varieties. "Village life in many places is dying, and the beans are dying with them," he said.

And not just beans. The Sienese pig seemed destined to go the way of the dodo, supplanted by fatter imports from England after World War II. High-yield American and Dutch grains overwhelmed native Tuscan varieties. The Valdarno free-range chicken was run off the farm by fat hens happy to sit row by row in henhouses. Venturi and his group, called the Custodian Farmers, helped saved them.

The Custodians try to get people to raise old breeds and cultivate traditional crops. In Loro Ciuffena, above San Giovanni, the Custodians keep an old stone mill in operation, powered by a torrent that runs through a gorge that cuts the town in half. Farmers use the mill to grind mountain wheat and chestnuts, a substitute for flour in many poor mountain villages.

Not long ago, Venturi was following a bean lead near San Giovanni, which lies along the Arno River near Florence. He had heard of a white bean that grew on lush vines. He inquired. "The farmers were difficult. They're not used to talking about their things. It's as if I was asking about members of the family," he says.

Finally, he got a call. A man had an old story to tell about a shepherd who herded his flock up to the village and inadvertently dropped a few beans imported from Spain in the main plaza. A farmer took them home and planted them. They flourished and became the town bean.

"We had to look hard for records of this bean," said Venturi. They found them among musty documents kept in an institute in Florence.

One pride of the Custodians was discovery of the zolfino, a yellow bean. A restaurant owner mentioned that he had a yellow bean from his childhood. Three nearby farmers grew the bean in a Tuscan hamlet call La Penna. The Custodians persuaded a dozen more farmers to grow zolfinos, to establish relationships with Tuscan restaurants and to organize a bean festival to promote La Penna and its product. Thin skin and its color are a main attraction. "Mangiafagioli came from miles around to eat them," Venturi said.

Oliviero Degli'Innocenti is one of the zolfino growers near Loro Ciuffena. He retired from machine work after losing two fingers and tends to the beans, olives and two varieties of chestnuts on a little farm. "I grew the toscanello," he continued, showing off a little white bean that is common in the mountains. "But then, I can sell the zolfino for more money."

His four grown children come up to help from their city jobs elsewhere in Tuscany, along with 20 grandchildren. They help weed around the olive and chestnut trees and pick the beans. But they don't want to go back to the land. "It's just a different mentality. The work is just a hobby for them,' said Degli'Innocenti. "Anyway, they eat so much when they visit, they hardly pay for their labor."

Daniel Williams's last article in this series was about cod in Vicenza.

Food activist Viviano Venturi at the 900-year-old mill in Loro Ciuffena, Italy, where Custodian Farmers encourage a return to traditional crops; below, a view of the Tuscan town. At left: The object of Venturi's food sleuthing, the yellow zolfino bean, cultivated in a hamlet called La Penna; below, a Tuscan variety known as fagiolini gentile dall' occhio.