Why you should be crazy for heirloom shell beans
By Jennifer Burns Levin
Who knew beans would be the reason for the season?
Heirloom shell beans are all the rage, part of the local food movement that will only get bigger in 2009. And it makes sense. Because beans provide a filling, economical source of protein, fiber and B vitamins, they are served in traditional and rustic dishes all over the world. Furthermore, the push for recovering local heirloom seeds has stimulated a resurgence in crops native to the Americas. Farmers — and consumers — are rediscovering how to grow and use myriad beautiful varieties.
In the past few years, Napa-based Rancho Gordo has created an almost cult-like following in dried heirloom shell beans, with a zealous group of followers that storms the weekly San Francisco Ferry Building farmers’ market in search of exotic varieties. Rancho Gordo’s yellow-eye and speckled anasazi beans (pictured) are only some of heirloom varieties they offer, with each bean having its own flavor and texture. Yellow-eyes are traditional in New England baked beans. Simmered with bacon, onions and jalapeños, then lashed with tequila, anasazi beans make a winter staple nothing short of transcendent.
Indeed. Eugene food blogger Amy McCann was recently spotted with her arms full of legumes at the Hillsdale farmer’s market. “Who would have thought people could be so passionate about beans?” she wonders.
The farm that produced those love beans, Ayers Creek Farm, is an Oregon Tilth-certified organic farm located in Gaston, 30 miles west of Portland. They offer their bean bounty in winter at the Hillsdale farmers’ market. On a recent weekend, this included a selection of hand-harvested dried beans with evocative names such as purgatorio, a delicate white bean; black Basque; the chestnut-flavored borlotto lamon; the red-eyed Soldier; and Tarbais, the classic French cassoulet bean.
Owner Anthony Boutard sees his beans as a part of a systemic shift in producing staple crops. The great demand is less of a trend than an unmet need for well-grown, high-quality staples. His farm has offered unusual varieties of staple crops, such as grain corn, barley, sweet potatoes and potatoes, for the past eight seasons. “We are surrounded by wheat fields, and we wanted to find a way to bring debased staples such as wheat back into scale of the market farm in a profitable and interesting way,” says Boutard. “We wanted to scale down a cheap commodity and make it a high-quality food in the same way we manage our other crops.”
Eugene gourmand and longtime Ayers Creek customer Trillium Blackmer uses at least a pound of Boutard’s beans a week, especially in the winter. She stresses that high-quality beans are crucial. “I think part of the problem is that many people experiment with beans that are just not very good, get frustrated, and give up. Most beans, if they are fresh and dried with care, do not require any presoaking before cooking, and don’t get tough with early salting.”
Beans are also an important part of efforts in surrounding counties to recreate a local and sustainable food system. The Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project has been holding field trials with two local farms interested in transitioning their crops from grass seed to food sources. Farmers Harry MacCormack of Sunbow Farm and Harry Stalford and Gian Mercurio of Stalford Seed Farms have had moderate success at growing popular legumes in Linn and Benton Counties in the past few years. Garbanzos, pinto beans and lentils grow well on the valley floor, they report, but the cold weather in 2008 created smaller yields.
But consumer desire for beans will surely motivate more farms to consider legume crops. “We have people calling us to get our product,” says Gian Mercurio, “it’s a farmer’s dream.” If the creamy, plump garbanzo beans I recently sampled are any indicator of the quality of beans that our valley can produce, the phone will start ringing off the hook.
Jennifer Burns Levin writes about local food at culinariaeugenius.wordpress.com, where you can find bean recipes from local cooks and links to the Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project and McCann’s food blog, Our Home Works.