Lost and found: why it was important to revive the very special Haricots Tarbais

haricot_tarbaisTarbais beans  are the holy grail of beans – probably because they are so damned difficult to find.

Introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the dying years of the 15th century, the Tarbais bean became the first haricot bean in France to be granted the coveted Label Rouge in 1997 and a Protected Geographical Indication in 2000, guaranteeing its level of quality.

This is a surprise only because, thanks to intensive farming, the variety all but died out in the 1950s. It was only revived in 1986 by a small group of farmers in the Tarbes region who came together and created the co-operative that continues to cultivate this exceptional bean today.

The tradition of Tarbais beans in the Bigorre region of Gascony, close to the town of Tarbes, began in the 18th century in the valley of the Adour river. As it is a climber, it is traditionally planted alongside maize, whose stalks support it as it grows.

Over time the haricot adapted to the Gascony climate and environment, resulting in the treasure that is grown today.


Proof is in the eating: a traditional Garbure is a good way of sampling the bean’s quality

This special bean benefits from its terroire thanks to its its well defined criteria and being seeded on a specific date. Picking is exclusively by hand, pod by pod.

Tarbais Haricots have a very thin skin, making this type of bean easier to cook and giving it a particularly delicate flavour.

The lack of skin also causes them to melt in the mouth and deliver a creamy texture as well as making them light on the stomach and easy to digest. With low starch content they are remarkably tender, though they do not burst during cooking or become mushy on your plate.

Tarbais Haricots have other unique qualities: they cook 10% to 50% faster and absorb 10-20% more water than other varieties, like lingot, coco and soisson varieties. And nutritionists say they are full of health benefits.

As well as being low in lipids (1% fat), they are also rich in fibre and protein. Low in calories : 128 Kcal/100gr of soaked beans, the pulses help to balance the protein in your diet and may well help to prevent heart disease and some cancers.

Planted in May, these haricots are harvested between August and October, when they are hand-picked and commonly used in cassoulet and other classic French stews, including Garbure and La Mounjetade.

Inspired by this discovery, I decided to try a classic Garbure. The name is associated with the term “garb” which describes sheaves of grain on a coat of arms. Garbure is eaten with a fork,  a reference to the use of pitchforks to pick up these sheaves of grain.

A large tureen of garbure is a common sight in Bearnais restaurants, where guests can help themselves to as much as they wish using the ladle provided.

Often this meal ends with a traditional chabrot or godala. This is the custom of consuming red wine that has been added to any liquid left in the bottom of the bowl.

Ingredients for a classic Garbure for two people

1/4 green cabbage, cut into thin strips

100 g smoked bacon lardons

50 g Tarbais haricots soaked in cold water (if these are impossible to find use cannellini or other white kidney beans)

2 legs of duck confit

1 large potato, peeled and quartered

1 clove of garlic, whole

1 leek, sliced

1 turnip, quartered

1 carrot, sliced

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 bouquet garni (typically bay leaf, thyme and parsley)

Salt and pepper



In a casserole, brown the bacon, add the soaked beans, garlic clove, leek, turnip, carrot, onion and bouquet garni, salt and cover with water (no more). Bring this panache of vegetables to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for one hour.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, boil enough water to blanch the thin strips of cabbage. Let them sit in the boiling water for five minutes. Then remove the cabbage, pass it under cold water before adding it to the other vegetables. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes.

To finish, add the potato, the confit duck legs and some coarse ground black pepper. Taste, adjust  the seasoning if necessary and continue to simmer for another 25 minutes or so.

When you’re ready to serve, put a slice of toasted baguette on each plate, pour over two good ladles of vegetables, place a piece of duck on top and sprinkle on some of the bacon lardons.

C’est tout!

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