The name 'heirloom' connotes the passage of time and a sense of allure and quality. But when it comes to beans, what does heirloom really mean and can you really taste the difference?
I remember once hearing Chef Dominique Crenn describe the experience of eating a tomato straight from her Grandmother’s garden in France when she was a kid. The flavor exploded in her mouth and set the stage for her future culinary adventures. Legendary chef and food activist, Alice Waters, described a similar experience about tasting a "life-changing" wild strawberry during a year abroad (hmmm, also in France. Duly noted).
Now, while I’m not a chef or culinary figure, I can relate. The moment I tasted an heirloom bean for the first time, it was like the lights came on full blast. The fog had lifted. I realized all that I’d been missing by simply sticking with the same old beans on rotation. And trust me, I love beans of all types. But suddenly there was a new world of flavor and varieties to discover.
This revelation happened at a dinner party at a friend’s house years back. There was an entire meal served with dishes worthy of a Michelin star restaurant. But, it’s that side dish with those meaty white Corona beans that I remember most. The beans left such an impression on me that years later, here I am - Co-Founder of Beanstory and Chief Bean Believer.
So, what even is an heirloom bean? Essentially, they’re any bean that has been passed down through generations or families and has withstood the test of time. When you plant an heirloom seed, you get the same kind of bean that was eaten traditionally, throughout the years.
Beans are indigenous to the Americas and are part of the diet of virtually every culture around the globe. There are tens of thousands of different varieties of beans known to exist. Grocery stores, sadly, typically only carry four or five types (Black, Pinto, White, Kidney…). These standard varieties are called “commodity beans” because they’re bred for yield and profit versus taste. Heirloom beans, by contrast, are trickier to grow and produce less output, but, yes, you can taste a difference.
Ask anyone who loves to cook if heirloom beans are better, and they’ll undoubtedly say yes. I get it. Heirloom varieties tend to have deeper, more complex flavors. Their bite and texture feels more satisfying. They come in all shapes and sizes and gorgeous hues that make each taste feel somehow more special. They’re also likely fresher and cook faster. That’s because these beans are typically grown in smaller quantities by smaller farms and are sold and consumed within the year in which they are harvested. Compare that to grocery stores that have been known to stock beans sometimes as old as ten years!
Now, let's give love to all beans. Standard varieties hit the spot too. I crave cannellini's for brothy beans and I adore our black beans for salads and burgers (and given ours come straight from the farm, you’ll notice a big difference in taste and cooking time versus standard grocery store varieties). but when I want to experiment or eat beans straight from a bowl, it’s heirlooms to which I turn: Peruano, Rio Zape, Tiger’s Eye, White Runners, and Zuni Gold to start. They’re delicious and intriguing and satisfying to eat and cook. At least that’s my impression. But you be the judge. I’m curious to hear your thoughts after you've tasted some for yourself. So dig in and please drop us a line.
And...to follow Bean Stories about our different heirloom varieties, read more here.