Acerra’s agricultural economy has historically been connected to its many canals, the Regi Lagni, which cross the fields and mark out the borders of its territory. Already in the pre-Roman era, the Acerra countryside was crossed by the Clanio, an important river for agriculture in the Campanian plain and essential to irrigation and water supplies throughout the Acerra area. Ancient Roman historians and writers have recounted how the network of waterways created by the Clanio became so branching and disordered that it created many problems. The river had many tributary channels, and because of the floods caused by these waterways, Acerra found itself surrounded by an enormous swamp. The problems caused by the water did not stop agricultural activities; after a long period of crisis following the fall of the Roman Empire and a series of wars between Longobards, Byzantines and Saracens fighting over this fertile plain, cultivation restarted around the 11th century, boosting the area’s economy. During the 16th century the first drainage works began in the area, and the building of bridges and canals led the emergence of many plots of land.
The canon Andrea Sarnataro, author of a daily diary about happenings in Acerra from 1736 to 1771, described the area’s agricultural products and mentioned the white cannellini beans, distinguishing them from the mostrati (as black-eyed beans were called in the local dialect). Descriptions of the cultivation of beans in the Acerra countryside can be found in many histories of the town, but the most interesting and important description of the bean known as “Dente di Morto” is in the guide to Italian gastronomy published by the Touring Club Italiano in 1931. In the guide, the beans are named as a specialty of Acerra, and at the time were even being exported to America. Their name, which means “dead man’s tooth,” comes from their opaque white color. The fact that in this area there were many burial places from the early Christian era must have played a part in their naming. Trade in the beans was a very significant economic activity from the early 20th century until the 1970s. The Messina and Cucco families specialized in selling the beans, and even had their own brand for export.
The bushy, non-climbing plants are bright green in color. They were traditionally sown twice, in April and July, so as to provide two different harvests. Dente di Morto beans are still cultivated following environmentally sustainable practices. The beans have a thin, almost imperceptible skin and cook quickly, virtues that have become fixed over time thanks to their cultivation in volcanic, nutrient-rich soil. The excellent texture and intense flavor of the beans has made them a typical ingredient in Neapolitan dishes like pasta with beans and various soups.
Sown in spring, in April, or late, in July. Harvest takes place respectively in July and September-October.