I haven’t grown French beans for a few years. I like the vegetable very much but have preferred to grow runner beans instead. This year I fancied a change. I decided to make holes in the bottom of an old wheelbarrow, fill it with compost and raised a few plants from seed. Much to my delight, my first harvest was ready to pick this week, and there are plenty more to come. I had my doubts about the barrow; we have had so much rain on and off over the past few weeks, I was convinced it would become water-logged and the beans would drown. In fact, I have been fussing around them like an old mother hen for weeks. But all to the good, the plants seem very healthy and my efforts have paid off.
I grew a dwarf variety, which doesn’t usually require support. However, I did tie each plant to a thin cane as the barrow is quite shallow and the plants were beginning to sway around in the wind. Ideally, French beans thrive at their best in a sheltered spot; they love the sunshine, plenty of feeding, and whilst they like a lot of water, they need a free-draining soil – hence my worry over the barrow becoming water-logged.
Once the dainty, cream-white flowers have formed, the young beans develop quite quickly, and the full-grown beans are ready for picking in 4 to 6 weeks – the perfect bean for the impatient gardener! Pick the beans young to enjoy the super-tender texture, and also to encourage the other beans on the plant to grow. In spite of their name, it appears the beans originated in South America, although they have long been associated with the cooking of France. If you leave the bean pods on the plants, they will form beans inside the pods which can be picked, shelled and eaten as flageolet beans (another French delicacy and favourite of mine). Leave them longer still, and you’ll have your own haricot beans for drying and storing. Sadly, I don’t have the climate for haricots, or for that matter, the ability to resist picking the pods!
Preparation is simple, just nip off the stalk end and cook the beans whole, either steaming them for 6-8 minutes, or cooking in a little boiling water for 4-5 minutes. They freeze well: just blanch them in boiling water for barely a minute and then refresh, dry and pack as for any other freezer-destined vegetable.
- All beans are best picked, cooked and served as fresh as possible. Dress with a knob of butter or a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper and a few freshly chopped, soft-leaved herbs sprinkled over the top – basil, mint, parsley, coriander, tarragon and chives are great flavours for all beans.
- Once cooked, chop French beans into short lengths and mix with lightly cooked and mashed butter beans. Season and mix in lots of chopped parsley, then dress with a lemon and honey vinaigrette. Perfect served on freshly toasted bread.
- Add chopped, cooked French beans to a frittata, omelette or scrambled egg, and flavour with chopped chives.
- Dress a plate of freshly cooked warm beans with a few shakes of balsamic vinegar and a light dusting of brown sugar.
- This is one of my favourite French bean recipes: heat 2 tbsp. olive oil with a finely chopped garlic clove for 1 minute over a low heat. Add a chopped ripe tomato and a few chopped, pitted dry-pack black olives. Season with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. Heat through gently for 2-3 minutes. Pour over freshly cooked warm French beans, and serve sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper and a few tarragon leaves. Bon appétit!