So what do you do on a rainy Sunday at work after your second drenching of the day? Put all your wet gear in the drying room and head for the shed to do a bit of tidying up and sorting out. I started off by checking through the all the trays of stored potatoes, shallots and garlic that we have put away to replant next spring – my nose was telling me there were a few mouldy specimens lurking within. In the middle of all the spuds I came across a couple of trays of Martock beans, still in their pods and waiting to be processed. It’s the medieval broad bean that we grow in the garden of our Tudor longhouse – smaller and more modest than its modern descendants, more like a black-eyed pea or a small borlotto.
As I sat for a peaceful hour shucking them from their pods I was reminded of the book I am currently reading ‘Down to Earth – a guide to simple living’, by Rhonda Hetzel. She writes an inspirational blog of the same name, detailing her life with her husband and family in Queensland, Australia. She talks about mindfulness and finding pleasure in self-reliance and simple tasks – relearning the skills that our ancestors took for granted and practising them as a subversive act. Now I don’t know who my medieval ancestors were, but from my height and colouring I’d say they were Northern European (we grow our bones long in my family). At this time every year they would have been sitting around shucking beans, ready to store them safe and dry, away from mice and mould. With every satisfying rattly plunk of bean into bucket, there is a feeling of another morsel saved, another mouth fed.
My two little trays of beans yielded about 1.5 kilos of dry beans - that's 20 portions of food. I haven't tried cooking Martock beans before, so I decided it was time for a taste test. After a long soak - me, half an hour in a hot bath and the beans overnight in a bowl of cold water, I set about cooking them…
A little research* revealed that not only were these humble beans a staple in Tudor times, they were feeding Iron Age Brits, and are still highly prized in Middle Eastern cuisine. This what the Pharaohs were eating for breakfast. Field beans are still grown in Britain as part of an organic crop rotation - but the beans are mostly exported to Arab countries to be made into the Egyptian classic Ful Mesdames (the 'ful' is pronounced 'fool'). The recipe has many variations - but the essential ingredients seem to be cooked beans mashed with a little garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and cumin. Somewhere between hummus and refried beans it has a delicious earthy comfort that can be dressed up with any number of garnishes like harissa, crumbled feta or parsley. Here it is in its naked state - tonight it will be served with the traditional accompaniments of hard boiled eggs and flatbreads.
*In the course of my research I came across the fantastic Hodmedods which has everything you could wish to know about British grown pulses. There are also loads of recipes and an online shop that sells all kinds of exciting products like roasted peas with horseradish (wasabi peas), and salted roasted fava beans (habas fritas). You've got to love an iron age bar snack right?!?!