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.  

ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power