Almost all my experience of eating haricot type beans has been from tins, and I’d grown into the lazy assumption that they were all much of a muchness – worthy, protein rich and both floury and tastless; the kind of food you eat to become a better person. When I’m in Potwell Inn mode it’s true that I sometimes dig into my deep wells of idleness and the lively sceptical mind silts up a bit. It certainly silted up on the subject of growing pulses. We tried Borlotti beans about 10 years ago and although they grew well, when we’d shelled them and put them in a Kilner jar looking awfully pretty, we had no real idea what to do with them, and so they languished in their role as kitchen eye-candy until one day I was blind baking some pastry and thought I’d do something useful with them as baking beans in a quiche tin. Later, in France, we spotted a pile of them in a market. “At last,” I thought, “I’ll ask how you’re supposed to use them”. The response was a Gallic shrug and “je ne sais pas” – end of culinary research.
Sooo ….: all these years later (visualize little filmic cliché effect with spinning newspapers), we grew them this season. I know why: it’s because over the past couple of decades our food culture has changed beyond measure. My memory of allotments – and now I’m thinking of Mr King, a retired miner, and yes there was a huge coalfield in South Gloucestershire – my memory comprises potatoes, cabbages, celery that smelt of coal soot and, of course, red flowered runner beans. These days we love new ideas and new vegetable species and all our cookery books are filled with exotic ingredients that supermarkets are pleased to stock as long as we keep buying them. Borlotti beans are almost passé now and so (as in most things) we clung to the disappearing coat tails of fashion and grew some. Now, of course, there’s an abundance of contradictory advice everywhere you look, but we were able to establish that you can eat them fresh and green – in the manner of broad beans, or semi dry when they need about 40 minutes to cook, or fully dried where you have to soak and pre-cook them – all the faff that put me off them in the first place. We also discovered that you can freeze them successfully when they’re in stages 1 or 2. Actually distinguishing between stages 1 and 2 is a bit tricky because on a real plant (as opposed to Gardeners’ World on telly) beans ripen at different rates and in any case, who hasn’t delayed harvesting for just a couple of days to see if they’ll fatten up a bit more. Think courgette to marrow.
So in our freezer is a large bag of frozen borlotti beans which I reached into because I was cooking a sausage casserole, and I could make it into a cassoulet in a matter of seconds and get loads of brownie points from Madame.
New para! It really deserves a new paragraph because the beans are something different and entirely better than any canned or dried borlotti I’ve ever eaten. They have flavour, and that was something of a revelation to us both. In fact they transformed the dish from boring old sausage casserole to proper cassoulet. So this year we’ll grow a whole lot more for the winter because although we’ve still got lots coming on, the potatoes won’t last until the end of January and we need to factor in feeding ourselves well over the hungry gap.