Coco – the crème de la crème of beans

Last week the wonderful Charlie Hicks dropped off a calico bag of the most amazingly creamy beans that I’ve ever tasted. Now, I’ve been a fan of semi-dried, or what the Americans call “shelling beans” for years. These beans are left on the plant until fully matured and beginning to dry. Their season is from late summer into early autumn so we’re really at the close- snap ’em up if you can or you’ll have to wait until next year.

When I was in my twenties I cooked on a very glam’ Italian yacht and the guests used to go bonkers with excitement at the beginning of the borlotti harvest and soon I loved them too. Last summer we spent a couple of weeks in Calabria and despite the fact that there were dozens of wonderful little restaurants and beachside lidos serving up zippy, chilli-fueled dishes I just couldn’t resist cooking some of the stunning pink-speckled borlotti from the market. Shopping was the first job of the day before the searing August heat set in and bean-podding made a change from the children’s other holiday job of making fresh lemonade. Podding was safer too; we only discovered that the lemon tree (that we’d encouraged the kids to climb) hung precariously over an 80 ft drop, on the last day of the holiday. What a way to go, plucking a lemon for your Dad’s G&T.

My way with borlotti is an Italian classic. You fry up some diced pancetta (unsmoked bacon will do), onion, celery and carrot and once your “soffritto” is meltingly soft then throw in the beans. Give them a stir and cover with water, or stock, and add a few herbs (such as rosemary or thyme) to the pot. Simmer until the beans are tender and then season, toss in some fresh tomatoes and some tiny pasta shapes. Cook until the pasta is ready. Heaven. (You can find a more detailed recipe in my book PULSE)

But now to the white beans. In Calabria I found fagioli a burro (Italian butter beans – not related at all to what we know as butter beans) and they were indeed pretty buttery in texture. It was about 40°c and so I made a really simple salad- in fact it was so hot when we decided to prepare my beans that Imi and I had to sit in the paddling pool to keep cool whilst we podded. I’ve cooked cannellini from the pod too, as well as delicious Spanish pochas, but until last week I was a coco virgin.

Coco beans

I have to admit that the Breton coco bean, or Coco de Paimpol to be precise (it has it’s own appelation d’origine contrôlée), is not much to look at in its pod – no flashy pink, just a rather mottled violety-beige, but it pops from the pod, glistening white and shiny. If the borlotti deserves Italian fashion status with it’s Missoni-esque markings then the aptly named Coco surely should be hailed as the pure chic, French Chanel.

The texture of the cooked coco is exceptional, Charlie tells me that they have been referred to as beany ganache, well it’s no surprise. These are the most melt-in -the mouthy legumes that I’ve ever experienced and that’s coming from someone who has spent a couple of years researching a book on pulses.

So what to do with them? …I kept it very simple.

Cover the beans in water, throw in a couple sage leaves and chop up a few fresh tomatoes (I picked the last few of our homegrown) Simmer the beans until tender and then season with salt.

We ate some of our beans hot with plenty of extra virgin olive oil alongside our monthly treat of rump steak (from our meat box). The remainder were shared with Sasha the fruit fairy up the road, and eaten as salad with some finely diced shallot, parsley, extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.

I’m waiting for the 2014 Paimpol coco season already. You may have to badger your green grocer to track some down but do, the coco is honestly the crème de la crème of beans.

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