There’s more to beanz than Heinz

Think beyond the can and try your hand at cassoulets and Boston baked beans, says Christopher Hirst

Why don’t the British like white beans – with one notorious exception? Of course, we lap up baked beans (which are actually stewed). According to Heinz, 2.3 million of us eat its “beanz” every day. But there is no insatiable appetite for recipes incorporating dried white beans. At our local Sainsbury’s, where baked beans occupy a vast acreage of shelf space, there is just one type of dried white bean, the cannellini, on sale.

Bean dishes have sustained Americans since colonial times, while the French relish the mighty cassoulet. Channel Islanders enjoy the Jersey bean crock and Guernsey bean jar, but mainland Britain has no tradition of bean dishes unless they are tinned and drowned in over-sweetened tomato sauce.

This omission is unfortunate. The cheap, sustaining and healthy bean – there are sound nutritional reasons for the expression “full of beans” – is ideal fare for the demanding days of winter.

I began my exploration with the American classic Boston baked beans. Like potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, the haricot bean is American in origin. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America explains the origin of this dish: “Natives taught settlers how to cook beans with maple sugar and bear fat in a pit filled with hot stones or ashes.” With pig fat and molasses replacing the original ingredients, it was so relished as a Sunday treat in Massachusetts that Boston became known as Beantown.

Why molasses? This residue from the refining of sugar cane juice – what distillers call “the bottom of the barrel” – was plentiful in Boston due to the colonials’ love affair with rum. In 1763, New England had 159 distilleries, 30 in Boston alone. When all the sugar has been extracted, the dark remnant, which in its most extreme form is known as blackstrap, is tarry and burnt in flavour. Molasses is an acquired taste.

In The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a massive repository of culinary Americana, Amanda Hesser describes a 1937 recipe for Boston baked beans as “pretty great because it’s so different from baked beans as we know them. The texture is creamy, like refried beans, and the sauce isn’t nearly as sweet and syrupy.” (She doesn’t mean what we know as Heinz Beans, which are unknown in America aside from imports from England.)

I used cannellini beans. After overnight soaking and a good simmer until soft (around one hour and 40 minutes), I baked the beans with 300g of belly pork (substituting for salt pork) sliced into quarter-inch strips, two teaspoons of ready-made Colman’s mustard, one teaspoon of salt, a cup of boiling water and three tablespoons of molasses. No sugar, no tomatoes. After seeking advice on the matter, I found that slow baking (along with plenty of chewing) is an effective way of avoiding what the Americans delicately term “gas”. I cooked the beans overnight in a casserole at 100C.

The beans had the desired creamy texture but the flavour was curious. My wife’s reaction was more forthright. “They taste horrible. Too tarry. It’s like something you pour on the road.” After a few mouthfuls, I came to the same view. The bitter aftertaste was unpleasant, like chewing an aspirin. A recipe from Jane Grigson that included brown sugar and cloves along with molasses also headed towards the medicinal.

It turned out that others feel the same about Boston baked beans. Leading food PR Carolyn Cavele, who once lived in Beantown, has unhappy memories of the local legume: “I ate them out of politeness but I didn’t find them at all pleasant.” Food writer Charles Campion and chef Jeremy Lee vigorously supported her view (“Revolting!”; “Ugh!”) and urged the substitution of molasses with, respectively, maple syrup and pomegranate molasses.

It seems that the Native Americans were right in the first place. You need some sweetness with beans. For a third attempt, I tried a recipe incorporating sugar, honey and paprika along with pinto beans (somewhat larger than cannelloni) from Waitrose and Sainsbury’s Basics Cooking Bacon (odds and ends that you can rifle through for thick pieces). The result tempted the eye with dark red, glistening beans and thick chunks of bacon. Rich and deeply satisfying with a prickle of heat, it was a triumphant example of what an Italian chef friend calls “comfy food”.

Bean food reaches a mighty peak with cassoulet from south-western France. “A dish worthy of Gargantua’s monstrous appetite,” writes Caroline Conran in her excellent cookbook Sud de France, though she notes that it does not have to be quite so grand as some recipes maintain. For a feast-day cassoulet, it should be two-thirds meat to one-third beans with carrot and onion, but the proportions can be reversed for a dish that is “cheap, comforting and rustic”.

Larger haricots are best for cassoulet (look out for lingots de Soissons if you’re in the dish’s homeland). The meat should include belly pork, a lump of pancetta (or good streaky bacon) and Toulouse sausage. Somewhat harder to find is confit of duck, though you can buy it (at a price) from Amazon, or mail order butcher Donald Russell. One ingredient readily available is goose fat, used for browning the meat and vegetables. Best made over several days, cassoulet is the perfect winter warmer, though I once saw sweaty tourists in Carcassonne tucking in on a boiling summer day. Commercial versions, particularly La Belle Chaurienne, can be excellent. Now that’s the kind of tinned beans I wouldn’t mind eating on a regular basis.  

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Guru Careers: Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Brand Manager / Marketing Campaign Manager is req...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage