For more than two centuries, the lands of Bigorre at the foot of the Pyrenees have been jealously guarding a gastronomic jewel, Tarbais beans, the first bean to be granted the "Label Rouge" designation. Originating in the New World, and grown long ago by the Aztecs in Mexico, beans were first brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the 16th century, where the new "ayacoti" began to be planted. The Bishop of Tarbes was passionate about this new plant. Returning from Spain, he introduced them to the Adour Valley in 1712, and they have been grown abundantly ever since. It is common to sow a bean with a kernel of corn, so that the corn can act as a stake for the beanstalk. In 1881 there were 18,500 hectares cultivated on the Tarbes plain. Until about the 1950s. the vegetable market in Tarbes was the most important and highly-regarded. Bean cultivation was passed down from generation to generation, from cassoulet to cassoulet, in the Adour Valley.
The Tarbais bean is planted in May. The vigorous plant can grow to 2.5 meters in height, making staking essential. The pods are 15 to 20 cm in length. Because of the continuous flowering, the pods have to be picked by hand. The bean pods, sold "fresh" or "semi-dry," appear on the markets from late August to early October. Dried beans, after drying naturally on the stalk, are offered beginning in October. White in color, the flat kidney-shaped beans are about 2 cm in size.
The beans require approximately 10 hours of soaking.
For dry beans
Soak overnight (about 10 hours) in cold water. Discard the water, and bring the beans to a boil in fresh water. Cook over low heat for about 1 hour. Salt half way through the cooking time. In a pressure cooker, cook for 30 minutes after soaking.
Proportions: 60 - 80 g per person (they double in volume when soaked)
For fresh beans
They can be either freshly shelled or frozen. No soaking is required. Blanch them, i.e., start in cold water and bring rapidly to a boil. Refresh in cold water, then begin again over low heat, as for dry beans, and cook for 30-45 minutes.
Proportions: 120 - 160 g per person
Once cooked, the beans are incomparable with their extremely thin skins and soft, non-starchy flesh. They hold together very well when cooked. No matter how you cook them, they should be soft, neither crunchy, nor burst, nor puréed.
These exceptional beans are an ingredient much esteemed by chefs. They can also be used in salads and are an essential part of garbure and the famous cassoulet.
Photo : OT Midi-Pyrénées
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