Gigantes The ‘Greek Gigantes’ – the name translates as ‘giant’ – are a huge white bean that are becoming more widely grown in the UK. Hailing from northern Greece you might think they would not thrive in a maritime climate. But as I researched beans I discovered that in many southern European countries, beans are grown in mountainous regions where the climate is cooler and rainfall higher. Gigantes beans belong to the Phaseolus coccineus (runner bean) family and they have been bred to produce large white beans in stubby, wide pods that are not good to eat at the young fresh stage. As the beans ripen the pods turn papery brown and then crack open, revealing their gleaming white beans, at most four to a pod.
Tarbais This is only the second year that I have grown ‘Tarbais’ beans, but from now on they are added to my ‘must grow’ list. Like the majority of beans I grow they are a Phaseolus vulgaris (common bean) variety. I find they crop prolifically, producing their beans quite early in the season. Flowering and setting pods early is important if we are to be confident of a good crop. The beans are medium sized, with a thin skin, fine texture and a light, almost sweet flavour. ‘Tarbais’ beans form the basis of the classic French dish cassoulet. When you are gathering up your generous harvest of beans, check out the price of these gourmet beans from speciality food suppliers; they are unbelievably expensive!
Turtle Beans Turtle bean is a general name for small black beans. I think everyone should grow a black bean for their distinct mushroomy, earthy flavour. I grow one that I brought back from that warehouse in Mexico, which is wild and rampant, throwing up many vines about two metres high. It has small purple flowers and produces a mass of mini pods.
To be able to recommend a seed bean that is obtainable in the UK, I have tried the dwarf black bean supplied by Victoriana Nursery. This thrived in my garden. I’ve yet to try growing dried black beans that I’ve bought from a UK food shop – but perhaps this year I will.
Interestingly, in my collection of old gardening books, I find the Mexican black bean mentioned as late as 1960, often alongside Dutch browns, but they obviously fell out of favour. These beans had been recommended for growing during the war as an important source of protein.
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Zolfino The Italians love their beans and every region has its own special, local variety and bean dishes. ‘Zolfini’ beans were, until a few years ago, only cultivated by a few smallholders in one area of Tuscany and were at risk of being lost. Then a cooperative scheme rescued them and they are now more widely grown, although still a speciality crop. They are a small, round bean, and a light putty yellow colour – hence their name. ‘Zolfino’ means sulphur. I was unable to obtain seed beans, but bought a bag of beans intended for cooking. Although this is more costly than buying seeds, I dip into the bag year after year so that I can be sure the beans will grow true. If stored correctly, bean seeds remain viable for several years. Phaseolus vulgaris varieties rarely cross-pollinate, but I’m playing safe. I do keep seed from my own plants but only when I have grown individual varieties a little apart from one another, to avoid cross-pollination.
The ‘Zolfino’ bean cooks very well. The skin is thin, but it holds its shape, even when cooked to a soft, squishy texture. It is a dwarf bean, but like some of the heritage dwarf bean varieties it produces a longer leading shoot so that the plants become an untidy tangle. They definitely need firm staking with twiggy sticks.
If you can’t obtain ‘Zolfino’ seeds, an alternative, equally good, round bean would be ‘Coco de Paimpol’, traditionally grown in Brittany, northern France. There are several ‘coco’ varieties. They are all medium-sized and are delicious cooked very simply with just garlic and some herbs. We often eat ‘Zolfino’ or coco beans as a simple side dish or on toast for lunch. (Zolfini is singular, Zolfino plural.)
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issue 111 spring 2022