Square-jawed and dressed precisely, Ben Mason looks like the successful advertising man he once was.
But nowadays, the man sitting in front of me on a sofa in his flat in south London, is not a prototypical Tim Bell but Britain’s leading, perhaps only, baked bean entrepreneur.
In May 2014, he gave notice at his agency, Naked, where he had worked for seven well-remunerated years, to devote his energies, and a good proportion of his life, to reinventing the baked bean with his company Proper Beans. What was his colleagues’ response? “Mostly people just laughed. Everybody laughed. ‘Why baked beans?’ accompanied by a bemused chuckle, was the standard response,” Mason says.
But on he trudged and now Fortnum & Mason are stocking three varieties of his beans: British fava beans & smoked pork collar, ham hock, potato & thyme baked beans, and sundried tomato & English mustard baked beans. “It was a big deal getting into Fortnum’s as that is where the British obsession with baked beans started,” he says, adding, “though most people don’t know it.”
Indeed not, for when we think of baked beans we think of utility food – of student dinners, and sick-day lunches. We don’t think of the Queen’s grocer. But it was here where the progenitor of beans, suspended in sauce and pressure-cooked in a can, first came to sell five cases of his wares in 1886. The store bought them all and thus began HJ Heinz’s business in Britain.
The thing is though, what Heinz was selling back then is quite different to what we are eating right now. Originally, the recipe called for the addition of salt pork, but during the Second World War it was removed when meat supplies began to dwindle. “It is a wonderful product to eat in the middle of a war,” Mason says elliptically when I ask him what he thinks of Heinz’s current offering.
Mason’s products, though, are less cheap filler and more meal in themselves. They are as steak to corn beef. As he explains, the recipes he has created owe much to the Italian practice of soaking and cooking dried beans along with anything that you have in the fridge. He uses fava or haricot beans, soaking them overnight, draining them and mixing with his other ingredients and tomato, then slow-cooking for five hours in the oven. The result is very good indeed.
Perhaps predictably, some people have been fighting an online rearguard action against his efforts, a sort of “save our cheap beans” campaign. But as he points out, when you think about it, tinned baked beans are plain weird. What else do we eat that is cooked in the can? And anyway, is there any other food stuff that has stood unchanged during the past 60-odd years? Is that a matter of pride, really?
I can’t help thinking, though, that he has an uphill struggle on his hands persuading the pearl-wearing punters of Fortnum’s to try a dollopful at the tastings he runs in the shop. “When I offer them a taster, they do tend to recoil but then I watch them walk out of the shop with one of the pots.” HJ Heinz would be proud.