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Cooking with Tarbais Beans

T here are beans, and then there is the bean of beans: the haricot Tarbais. These large white beans come from the village Tarbes in the South West of France, and are grown within sight of the Pyrénées Mountains.

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The bean was first brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and it adapted well to the sunny, dry climate and rocky soil of the South West of France. It is said that when Catherine de’ Medici, the future wife of Henry II of France, arrived at Marseilles in 1533, she carried with her a bag of beans given to her by her brother as a wedding gift.

But it is the Bishop of Tarbes that usually gets credit for championing the bean after a visit to Spain. He began to grow beans in his own garden in the 17th century, and with his encouragement (and blessing) the bean was introduced to the farmers of his region of Tarbes. The haricot Tarbais flourished at the foot of the Pyrénées and its cultivation secrets were passed down from generation to generation.

Haricot Tarbais are a type of pole bean, and are planted in May alongside corn, another New World crop, a system whereby the corn stalk acts as a pole to support the vigorous bean vine, which can grow to 8 feet. Tarbais beans must be laboriously picked by hand, as they are entangled with corn stalks and continue to flower all season. The Tarbais beans are sold fresh or semi-dry as they are picked, from late August through September. But many are fully dried on the vine, and it is these that are picked in October, and destined for the traditional cassoulet of the region.

Tarbais beans and their labor-intensive production methods dropped out of favor in the 1950s, when more industrialized methods of farming were introduced to the region. It took a severe decline in the number of Tarbais beans to awaken the concern of a group of traditionalists in the mid 1980s. They and the department of agriculture set out to cultivate the Tarbais beans and protect them from vanishing.

As a result of their effort, the Tarbais Bean was the first bean to be granted the “Label Rouge” in 1997, and in 2000 it obtained IGP status (Indication of Protected Geographical Origin). Only members of a small, closed cooperative in Tarbais are allowed to use that name for their beans, and production is tightly regulated. They all grow a single strain, Alaric, which is harvested entirely by hand, in the old way. True Tarbais beans are identified with the term “Label Rouge” on the packaging, which ensures that the Tarbais bean is a traditional local product of outstanding quality.

Evolving over the centuries in harmony with the culinary needs of the region, the white Tarbais bean, with its thin, delicate skin and sweet, milky flesh, is ideal for cassoulet, the iconic, slow-cooked dish of South West France. The miracle of the Tarbais bean is that most beans will remain whole during cooking, but just enough beans will burst and help to thicken the cassoulet during its many hours in the oven. Many people in the South West of France claim is it the only bean suitable for making cassoulet. The delicate taste, thin skin and low starch content of the Tarbais bean makes it a useful bean for many other dishes as well.