Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Western Beans Experiment

Reading Volker Bach's suggestion in "Carolingian Foodways" that flavored boiled fava beans likely were a Carolingian staple inspired me to find another use for some of the canned fava beans I had bought to make ful medames.  Instead of using garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil to flavor the beans after boiling, I decided to use ingredients that were more likely to have been used in Carolingian Europe, namely bacon, onions, and mustard.  

Bach's recipe calls for discarding the water after boiling the beans, then mixing in the bacon, mustard, or other condiments with a little water and then letting the pot sit "over a gentle heat" for 10-20 minutes, so the flavors combine, watching carefully so that the beans don't burn. 

I had two different and conflicting reservations about this recipe.  One is based upon the use of boiling as a period technique.  It seemed likely to me that if a period cook wanted to flavor beans with bacon, the cook would have put the bacon in and boiled it with the beans, stirring in mustard and other flavorants (Bach suggests vinegar, butter or other fats) shortly before serving, instead of dumping out the original boiling water before adding the bacon. Dumping cooking water and adding fresh water, a trivial operation for us, would have been much more difficult when cooking over a fire without a nearby source of running water, or a sink, available.

The other reservation I had relates to ingredients. I was skeptical about how much flavoring would result if you heated modern sliced bacon raw in a pot with beans.  (Salt pork might work better, but that's not especially easy to get where I live.)  Boiling the bacon didn't seem likely to be an improvement.  Most modern bacon is very fatty and thinly sliced, and I feared that boiling it would make the beans greasy and nasty without adding appreciably to their flavor.

So I fried some bacon with onions and, after the beans were finished boiling, I chopped up the bacon, stirred the bacon bits and onions into the beans with a dollop of strong English mustard, and heated the mixture through before serving it. 

The result was wonderful.  The slight crunchiness of the bacon, as well as its flavor, complimented the beans perfectly while the onions added a slightly sweet note, and the mustard became nearly undetectable except for enhancing the umami of the dish.  My husband liked them much more than he had liked the ful medames, and I had to agree.  If I can get a regular source of small dried or canned favas, I will have to make these "Carolingian" beans again.

As a historical experiment, however, the beans I made were a bit of a failure.  They weren't all that Carolingian, because based on my reading of Bach's book, the Carolingians were unlikely to have fried their bacon before adding it to a pot of beans.  So although I have a new and interesting recipe for my repertoire, I still haven't achieved a plausibly Carolingian taste experience.

With these considerations in mind, I'm planning another beany experiment.  This time, I intend to boil (or, rather, simmer, in light of the difficulty of boiling anything in the clay cooking pots of the period) bacon and onions together with some of the canned beans I have left.  Granted, I only need to boil canned beans for about 8-10 minutes, and I do not need to spend hours soaking and cooking dried favas for edibility.  However, it's more conceivable that a Carolingian cook might have thrown onions into a pot toward the end of a long cooking process than to assume that such a cook would have pre-fried them first.  

Part of the impetus for this new experiment is my realization that I don't have to use supermarket bacon.  When I made my last bean recipe, I'd forgotten that we have a sizable hunk of dry-cured bacon, a present from a friend.  It's hard enough that it might need to be boiled to be edible--a boon for the experiment I have in mind.  (In fact, this bacon might need more boiling/simmering to be edible than the canned beans.)  For my next beany experiment, I will hack off some of the bacon and simmer it with my beans, along with some onion pieces, for a much longer time than the 8 minutes of hard boiling recommended by the ful medames recipe I've been using.  The mustard can be stirred in right before serving, as Bach suggests.  I expect this will get me closer to the true Carolingian bean experience.  It will be interesting to see how well my spouse and I like the result. 


  1. I agree with you about starting with the bacon included - dumping the water & adding fresh would not only more complicated due to a lack of running water, but with the lower heat of clay pot cooking it would have taken much longer to get the new water heated back to cooking temp. Unless you had a 2nd pot of water heating up in preparation.

  2. Hi, ista! Thanks for stopping by.

    I had not even though of the issue of heating up the water all over again; that would make a two-water simmer even less likely.

    1. I've been lurking for quite a while - I'm really interested in food history although I'm not a foodie in the modern sense. I'm in a Napoleonic Wars era group so need to take a bit of notice although food isn't my forte.

      I'm relieved you agree with me, phew!. It would take a wider fire to get 2 pots heating to make it a more seamless cooking time, which would mean more fuel. For something that I see as essentially a peasant dish ... even if delicious. Would a ham hock provide the right amount of pork:beans?? I've got one in the freezer that needs to be used and mustard in the fridge.

    2. Hi, ista! I'm not a "foodie" in the modern sense either--just someone curious about period food--how it was made, and what it was like to eat it.

      Bach's booklet presented the bean recipe in the section in which he discusses what monks ate during the period. However, I doubt that means the well-to-do *never* ate beans--just that they had better food options most of the time. Bach discusses what the inventories of wealthy homes, and Charlemagne's handbook on how royal estates should be run, all list beans and bacon among the necessary food supplies for a manor.

  3. The usual reason for draining beans after boiling to reduce the amount of compounds (starches?) which lead to intestinal gas. I suspect that is a modern effete-ism.
    I'm surprised that your (modern) bacon is "very fatty"; it has been my cooking observation that all pork products have gotten quite a bit leaner in the last two or three decades. (I suspect part of this is in an effort to compete better with that "other white meat", poultry.)

    1. For a period recipe using dried beans, I think it would have been adequate to throw out the soaking water and boil them in different water and that would deal with some of the starch issues. However, I will be working with canned beans which have already been cooked and just need to be softened. And as for gas, I can always use "Beano", which was unavailable to Charlemagne. :-)

      I, in turn, am surprised at your claim that pork products have gotten leaner over the past few decades. Let me rephrase that; I'm noticing some of that with regard to other forms of pork such as chops, but NOT with regard to bacon, which at best has not improved. This may be related to the fact that I live in PA, which is a dairy state and not a hog-producing state. A friend of mine who grew up in the Midwest (on a family-owned hog farm) sneers openly at the stuff that passes for bacon here, as opposed to what she's used to.

  4. Hi, Cathy,

    A couple of thoughts:

    1 - Until a few decades ago (I'll make a SWAG of 1950 as the beginning of mass-production hog farming), most pigs were fed on the family's scraps, etc, ("slopping the hogs"), likely more exercised than your average conrtemporary hog, most of which are raised in limited and controlled enviroments.

    2 - Also until that time, hog producers wanted fat hogs - lard or bacon grease was the major cooking fat (at least for us goyim) until Crisco and 'salad oil'

    3 - And meat was salted, smoked and dried to preserve it without refrigeration. (IIRC, there's some discussion in Colin Fletcher's _The Complete Walker_ on finding meats to take along on summer backpacking trips)

    Anyway, yours truly, who has been known to cookup a potful of dry beans, and put some in a container with chopped-up ham from the 'lunch-meat ends' selection at local supermarket and whatever sauce or gravy is at hand, to microwave for lunch at work, will add some mustard and fried onions to next batch and feel Carolingian (even more old and tired than he does this winter's day ;-) )

    1. Hi, John! Thanks for stopping by.

      I agree generally with your points--though I only have personal recollections going back to the early 1970s or so, when things were already probably moving toward mass production.

      I suspect that modern lunchmeat ends (which I have used from time to time) are much meatier than the bacon a Carolingian might have used. I suspect that their bacon, though leaner than most pork today, would have been salted and/or smoked, and might need a lot of cooking to be edible, let alone tasty. More on that when I hack into the "country cured" bacon we got from Gene and see how well or poorly that works.

  5. Hello yet again,

    Looked at the library's copy of _The Complete Walker_. Turned out it didn't have the info on preserved meats I thought. Mayhaps I was remembering other edition (_TCW_ has been revised about a half-dozen times since it was first published in the '60's) or another book entirely. Apologies.

    However, if you want a quick-and-dirty introduction to physiology / metabolism / nutrition / energy costs for general living and various pastimes, the 'Kitchen' chapter in _TCW_ is hard to beat.

  6. Hi, John. I'll have to check "The Complete Walker" sometime, it sounds like a useful and practical book.