he first French bean to be granted of Label Rouge, in 1997, Tarbais Beans are famed for their extremely thin skin, which makes them easier to cook and gives them an unbeatable, delicate flavour. It also makes them light on the stomach and easy to digest. The starch content is very low, so they are remarkably tender. They don’t burst during cooking or turn to mush on your plate, but when the time comes, they melt in your mouth to deliver their creamy texture. Delicious ! At cooking, Tarbais Beans have some amazing qualities : they cook 10% to 50% faster* and absorb 10% to 20%* more water* than other varieties. *(Compared with lingot, coco and soisson varieties : study carried out by the Auch CRITT-CTCPA agricultural technology research centre.
According to nutritionists, Tarbais Beans are full of health benefits. Low in lipids (1% fat) and rich in fibre and protein, Tarbais Beans are very low in calories : 128 Kcal/100 gr of soaked beans. Pulses help to balance the protein in your diet and may help to prevent heart disease and some types of cancer.
The ‘culinary gems’ of Southwest France, Tarbais Beans are acclaimed by the greatest celebrities of French Cuisine as the best of the 224 varieties grown in this country. These days you will find Tarbais Haricots being served in high-class establishments as far away as the USA, Japan, Australia...
The Tarbais Bean : a native of the New World
Bibliographical research has identified the ancestor of corn in Mexico, where it was grown by the Aztecs and already associated with the bean and the pumpkin. The Mexicans called the reddish, kidney-shaped seed “ayacolt”, the origin of our word “haricot”.
One of the first products imported from South America in the 16th century, the bean arrived in Europe in the hold of Christopher COLUMBUS’ ship. An interesting note is that when Catherine de’ Medici, the future wife of Henry II of France, disembarked at Marseilles in 1553, she took out from her trousseau a bag of “fagioli”, the beans later known as “haricots”.
From the Mexican haricot to the Tarbais Bean...
Phaseolus Vulgaris arrived in the valleys of the Pyrenees by Spain. It was planted on the plain of Tarbes at the beginning of the 18th century, at the same time as maize or “large millet”, by Monsignor de POUDENX, Bishop of the Tarbes diocese.
In those dark days when famine was rife, these new miracle commodities found its ideal climate and soil in the region of Bigorre .
One haricot bean for two of maize...
As the Tarbais Bean is a climbing plant, it was very soon planted alongside maize, whose stalks supported it and thus the two plants spread very rapidly across the plain of Tarbes, where it became the norm to plant one haricot bean between two adjacent maize stems.
Later, research showed that the haricot has evolved from the original common type, adapting to different climatic and environmental conditions.
This natural selection, which began in the 18th century, has resulted in the treasure we grow today.
From the end of the 18th century, many bibliographical sources tell of the sudden increase in Tarbais Bean production...
In 1838, in the Hautes-Pyrenees Region, the area of dry bean cultivation (a mixture of haricots, peas and broad beans) was 14,000 hectares, which amounted at that time to a production figure of 13,128 hectolitres (1 hl = 75 to 80 kg of haricots).
In 1881, cultivation spread even further, following the crisis in vine-growing caused by powdery mildew. Tarbais Bean were planted on an area of 18,500 hectares and production reached 37,000 hectolitres (approx. 3,000 metric tons). Consumption quadrupled and in a dry season, the region could not supply enough beans. It was the heyday of "Haricot Maize". It was a standby for daily consumption, for trade and for the army (Tarbes being a garrison town). Later, despite its role as an exported vegetable (the only one apart from fodder plants), its importance decreased, though remaining considerable.
In 1906, 12,000 hectares were still planted, with a production of 30,000 hectolitres, of which more than half were sold in Paris and Bordeaux.
In 1923, 11,500 hectares were given over to beans : the equivalent of 9.2% of the tillable land in the Region of the Hautes-Pyrenees.
Until the 1950s or 60s, beans were sold at the Marcadieu market in Tarbes in 80 kg sacks. It is said that… “The dealers flung themselves at the sacks to buy the beans. Taillefer took a whole loaded lorry. We used to sell 2 or 3 sacks.
It’s what made us well off. We could pay our TV....”. Beans were sent to Bordeaux and even to Algeria. Very soon it was recognised that Bigorre was particularly suitable for this variety and the Marcadieu Market in Tarbes (the Thursday market) was the biggest and best-known place for the trade in this type of bean. Nonetheless, the beans could still be found at all the small markets in the area. The wholesalers who came to buy increased the bean’s reputation. So, this kind of bean was sold throughout the Midi and gradually became known first as the "Tarbes Bean" and then as the "Tarbais Bean".
The period of decline
In the 1950s, the introduction of high-yield hybrid varieties of maize tolled the knell for the cultivation of beans which had previously guaranteed Bigorre’s prosperity. Faced with the intensive cultivation of maize, beans, which were less profitable and relied almost entirely on hard, manual labour, became a minor crop. Unlike other varieties of bean, Tarbais Beans cannot be harvested mechanically. Also, there are fewer families of growers and their children are sent to school at a much earlier age. With manual harvesting, production of the Tarbais Bean no longer has a place in so-called “intensive” cultivation.
So, in comparison to 1930, when almost 10,000 hectares of Tarbais Beans were recorded, the two general agricultural censuses held in 1970 and 1980 revealed that there are no more than 55 hectares left across the 650 farms in the Hautes-Pyrenees Region.
In fact, the official statistics cannot paint the true picture of the importance of bean cultivation.
Beans may no longer be grown in the field, but they are always been found in the vegetable garden. In the Adour Plain, almost every garden has 4 or 5 rows of beans, especially as the women who grow them sell them on the markets at Tarbes and Lourdes.
The Tarbais Bean remains an important part of the local country diet in the areas far from towns and markets and the seed, guarded jealously by individual families, is handed down from generation to generation, even today.
The renewal of the Tarbais Bean
In 1986, a meeting between a Councillor in the Tarbes Department of Agriculture (Pierre PUJOL) and a group of bean growers led to an idea : “Wouldn’t the Tarbais Bean be a means of diversification for agriculture in the Region, which is faced with difficulties in large-scale farming production (of cereals, milk and meat) ?”
The relaunch of the Tarbais Bean is the result of that thought...
Encouraged by those involved in the meeting, a dozen growers agreed to join in the experiment. Some were young people, seeking to supplement their income... but there were also some old hands, who wanted to pass on a valuable and ancient tradition they held dear.