Monday 4 August 2014

Confessions of a bean addict

It all started in 2005. James, a 2CV friend, sent us a package of "heritage" seeds (semences paysannes). It included "Climbing bean, Italian, thought to be Perfection B". Just a few beans, nothing serious. I thought I could give them up any time I like, and, well, it was harmless.

Then I started to meet other bean users (you know who you are, Stephen C-), Bean pushers, if you know what I mean. Passing each other little Ziploc™ bags containing a few seeds. Wow, man, the colours! and the psychedelic patterns, fascinating names, sometimes tragic history. Kew Blue, Bulgarian Purple, Yin yang. Lingua di Fuoco (Firetongue), Ireland Creek Annie, Hutterite Soup, Nombril de Bonne Soeur. The Cherokee Trail of Tears.

A dish of multicoloured dried beans found its way onto the kitchen table. I found a friend absently running her fingers through the beans, appreciating their silky texture and subtle colours.

Country Bean Mix

That's when I realised something had to be done.

I had to get more.

And France is an excellent place to find French beans (one  of many different types of cultivated bean belonging to the species phaseolus vulgaris). We particularly like haricots à écosser (beans for podding), which are available in the form of seeds for sowing, semi-dry ripe beans in their pods, dry beans in sacks for cooking, and canned haricots in brine. Soissons, Mogette (though this is only worthy of the name when grown in the Vendée), Triomphe de Farcy... You can buy ripe Coco beans in their pods at a vegetable stall in your local market from August onwards and save some of the seeds. For diversity, you can go to not-for-profit organisations like Kokopelli in France or the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library in Britain. The US, of course, is an excellent source of traditional varieties.

There are two forms of French bean: haricot à rames (climbing) and haricot nain (dwarf). This year we have two bean frames and we are growing more climbing beans. The British traditional style of frame is a bunch of canes stuck in the ground in a circle that cross at the top. Tim made one of these out of extremely rustic poles (elder branches) for  this year's planting. Our older frame has the canes crossing at the bottom, a style we first saw in Majorca used for tomatoes.

Bulgarian Purple Bean, on a traditional frame. It has purple beans. But scarlet flowers!

Worth growing for the flowers alone.
Cherokee Trail of Tears, like many beans grown for drying, has edible pods. Modern varieties are selected to remain tender for a long time; the traditional varieties just go stringy. At least CToT tells you when it's too late - you can eat the pods as long as they are green. As soon as red or purple streaks appear - the blood of the Cherokee - you may as well leave the pods to dry fully before harvesting them, because they are tough.

Cherokee Trail of Tears - just starting to flower
One from the HSL - Kew Blue - on the Majorcan frame. It's the pods that are blue, this time.
The big advantage of the Majorcan frame is that most of the beans hang outside it, making them easier to pick. It has a smaller footprint, so you can underplant it with another crop, or marigolds...

Being Brits, we love Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) too. In France, haricot d'Espagne are grown principally as a decorative annual climbing plant with abundant handsome leaves and flowers, oh and by the way the pods are edible. Only Bakker, founded in Holland, proposes a haricot d'Espagne (Lady Di) as a vegetable. In the US, too, "Scarlet Runner" beans are mainly grown for decoration.

Here, runner beans tend not to set - produce pods - mainly because the climate is dry and hot in summer. Runners need a lot more moisture around the roots than French beans and are often planted over a trench filled during the winter months with bulky organic matter that will retain moisture (crumpled newspaper will do). Misting the whole plant with water morning and evening helps a set. Needless to say we haven't done any of that, and they are doing just fine.

Runner bean "Moonlight" on the Majorcan frame, doing particularly well this year
Runner beans are perennials, overwintering as a fleshy root like a parsnip. Three of last year's "Moonlight" plants did this. They got off to an early start, and have been producing for about three weeks. The young plants I raised from seed are just beginning to catch up.

Good enought to enter  the "Six runner beans" class - not good enough to win though

Runners are unable to self-pollinate unless an insect "trips" the flower by alighting on the keel, causing the stamens to come in contact with the pistil. French beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are self-fertile, and don't need any help, so they set much more readily. That also means that French beans breed true, and you can save the seed from one year to the next and expect the same results. That is not the case in Runner Beans, since the pollinating insect is likely to bring in pollen from elsewhere.

Moonlight is a hybrid (oh horrors!), bred as a self-fertile runner bean: this was tried several times before and usually resulted in something that looked vaguely like a runner bean (often a subtly different colour) and tasted nothing like it, or possibly that should be "tasted like nothing". All praise to the developers of Moonlight: it works. "Firestorm" is a new red-flowered hybrid of the same type which we haven't tried - we'll stick with Moonlight, thanks.


Susan said...

Very entertaining and informative. I had no idea runners were perennial. You know of course that they were originally grown in Britain as an ornamental too.

Tim said...

I found one site that said runners spiral clockwise and french beans spiral anticlockwise. I actually had to go and look. Tney both go anticlockwise.

The first Brits to eat the beans had to get over the stringiness of the mature pod, and the rather sharp taste of the bean skin. But why waste a good bean if you're hungry?

Pollygarter said...

I just realised Bulgarian Purple is a runner bean. Duh. Rush out and spray the blighter.

Ken Broadhurst said...

That should be haricots à écosser (not cosser) -- shelling beans, we call them.

That part about runner beans (not a term we use in America, and maybe bit a bean we grow and eat) needing insect pollination probably explains that when we tried to grow some from U.K. seeds, we got lots of pretty flowers but nary a bean. We decided to stick with French beans.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Oh, further reading shows me that the runner bean like a damp climate. That's probably why people don't grow them here much or in America.

Haricots nains (not naines) — haricot is masculine. and Semences paysannes (not paysans) — semence is feminine. (Sorry, I worked as an editor in a former life, editing both French and English.)

Pollygarter said...

Thanks Ken, corrections duly made. I've never been an editor, but I like getting it right. I confused la cosse meaning "the shuck" with écosser "to shuck".

Ken Broadhurst said...

And black-eyed peas? Field peas? Crowder peas? Flageolets? Black beans? Pinto beans? Lima beans? I've lived on beans all my life.

Pollygarter said...

Whoa there tiger! I can only fit so much into one post! I'm writing here about members of the species phaseolus vulgaris and phaseolus coccineus, the sorts of temperate climate green bean that I grew up with, until I caught bean-itis. Since then I've grown flageolets and pinto beans, coco beans, yin-yang beans, cranberry beans, borlottis.... german, spanish, french, american... No success with lima beans (butter beans, phaseolus lunatus, wrong climate). Field peas are peas, different animal altogether.

I'm trying some black-eyed peas/beans (species vigna unguiculata, same as the crowder pea) this year, from a packet of beans I bought in a Portuguese store. They germinated very easily and grew fast. They have beautiful flowers, definitely pea-like, white with a yellow spot, that rapidly turn brown. At first they behaved like a dwarf bean, but now they suddenly put out runners and are climbing away. I'm sure it's not warm and humid enough for them here, but it's worth a try - I love black-eye peas.

One of our regulars is a heritage british Black Canterbury, which is a dwarf bean with all the attributes of a black (turtle) bean, wonderful in chillis instead of red kidney beans, but growing red canadian wonder just to see...
Bean fever! I shall have to go and lie down now.