Allyson Gofton in France: Tarbais beans
One of the pleasures of rural French cuisine is that even the most humble of foods is treated with reverence, and one such is l’haricot Tarbais — the Tarbais haricot bean — named after the capital city of our area and grown around our village.
Like many foods of this part of Europe, its history is inexplicable; it has been linked with Christopher Columbus, who brought back the seeds for maize, chilli and beans, all foods which found natural homes in this area. The beans also share a link with religion: monks were able to cultivate them in monastic gardens and during periods of famine distributed the beans to peasants to alleviate starvation.
Tarbais beans are a variety of climbing or pole haricot beans and they flourished here where they were planted between maize stalks, which served as poles. Even today, when wooden or metal poles can be used, should the grower wish to use the European IGP (Protected Geographic Indication) and the French Label Rouge when selling the dried bean, they must be grown climbing up the maize stalks.
The Tarbais bean is testament to the merry-go-round of food trends. A food for peasants throughout the 1800s, the beans became a family staple, partly because they can be eaten fresh or dried. Come the first half of last century, the beans — so important to the staple diet of the locals —were sold in 80kg sacks at the Tarbes city market.
They are the bean of the famed cassoulet, a thick stew where traditionally they are simmered with onion, garlic, pork meat, pork sausages and duck confit and served in an earthenware dish under a golden crust of breadcrumbs. WWII changed all of this and from the 10,000 hectares being cropped in the 1930s, 50 years later only 55ha were cropped.
Farming had become highly mechanised, internationally, dried beans lost out to meat consumption, maize production was more lucrative and producing such a unique crop was just far too expensive. Then in the 1980s, a handful of passionate farmers — seeing the growing trend for provenance and a new generation prepared to pay for such foods — founded a co-operative to re-establish the Tarbais bean as part of mixed cropping.
By 2000, the bean’s importance to this area, the terroir and its unique growing style was recognised and it was awarded the IGP. Today about 150ha are under cultivation and near-on 175 tonnes of dried beans will be hand-picked later in the year when their pods, firmly entwined around the maize stalks, will have split open, allowing the beans to dry in the fading sun and warm breeze of late autumn.
These pristinely dried white beans, grown from heirloom seeds in the shadow of the Pyrenees in a time honoured tradition, will not come cheap — about NZ$22-$25 a kilogram — but when cooked to butter-smooth tenderness, the few that you need to create a meal will have been worth every cent.
This versatile, easy coconut cream-based curry needs a gutsy, spicy, sweet curry paste such as south Indian, Thai or Malaysian — the choice is yours. Canned or dried beans can be used and the latter can be cooked in the oven or slow cooker where they will remain lovely and whole — or, if you are in a hurry, on top of the stove. Get the recipe