Beans were already cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico when Christopher Columbus decided to bring back some seeds to Europe in the 16th century: thus, the "ayacotl" became the "haricot". Monsignor de Poudenx, bishop of Tarbes, was quite taken with the plant; upon his return from Spain in 1712, he decided to introduce this bean in the Adour valley: the beautiful river originates in the Pyrenées, flows through Tarbes and ends its run in the Atlantic ocean near Bayonne. The local farmers adopted the tasty vegetable with much enthusiasm: by 1881, more than 45000 acres of land were devoted to the cultivation of this bean in the plain of Tarbes.
Traditionally, the Tarbais bean grows jointly with corn: because the Tarbais is of the climbing variety, farmers would seed one bean and one corn kernel side by side so that the bean would use the corn stalk as a stake. The arrival of corn hybrids in the 1960s almost wiped out the Tarbais production; the switch to intensive farming left no room for a bean that was harvested by hand. Fortunately, the precious seeds were not completely lost and got transferred from one generation to the next, from one cassoulet to the next… During the 1980s, a handful of farmers decided to jump-start the traditional production of the Tarbais in its favorite terroir. Like 200 years ago, the Tarbais is still harvested by hand, one pod at a time, only when it is at peak ripeness: a labor-intensive process, to be sure, but the only way to guarantee a truly exceptional product.
All the hard work has paid off: the "Label Rouge" was granted to the Tarbais in 1996, the first time the coveted recognition was awarded to a bean. It also benefits from an IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée), which specifies the exact area where it can be cultivated, essentially on the Adour plain of the Hautes-Pyrénées department. Most of all, a new generation of chefs and home cooks has discovered the Tarbais and raves about its qualities: its balanced taste, its thin skin and its buttery flesh. Traditional recipes include garbure and cassoulet, of course, but many chefs are also pairing it with fish (seafood cassoulet with cod or tuna, for instance). Tarbais beans are used as a base for a delicious soufflé with cépes mushrooms and truffle juice. And how about a chocolate-banana cake where Tarbais replace the flour? Skeptical at first, I tried the recipe and was pleasantly surprised by the results.
Supply has not kept up with demand yet and every year is a sellout. Fresh Tarbais beans can usually be found in local farmers markets in season but a good part of the crop is sold dried so the beans can be enjoyed year-around. Give this tasty legume a try with any of the following recipes: