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Jan 20 2017

The Queens of Beans

A small tribe of Spanish beans known as Judías de El Barco de Ávila make a claim to royal status. In Castile-León they are often referred to as the “Queens of Beans”, which is quite an accomplishment considering that they belong to an enormous bean family (Leguminoseae) of nearly 20,000 species

 

Judías de El Barco de Ávila are so valued for their characteristic thin skins, creamy texture and unique flavor, that these seven bean varieties are among the very few beans in all of Spain to be protected by an I.G.P. designation (Indication of Geographical Protection). The I.G.P. status protects the inherent characteristics of these judías, and ensures that any product so designated will meet certain requirements with regard to the variety planted, cultivation area, and processing methods. As their name suggests, these judías can be produced only in the agricultural hamlet of El Barco de Ávila-Piedrahita in Ávila, and in the town of El Tejado in the province of Salamanca, which has similar growing conditions.

Six of the seven varieties of Judías de El Barco de Ávila belong to the species Phaseolus vulgaris, which is also known as the common bean. Three of these are white: blanca riñón (white kidney), blanca redonda (white round), and blanca planchada (white flattened), while the other two are purple: morada larga (purple long) and morada redonda (purple round). The seventh variety belongs to the species Phaseolus multiflorus or runner beans, which are known here as judiones. Together with the variety blanca riñón, these large, smooth, white beans are the most famous of the judías from this area. Not only are they the most commercialized, but these two varieties also account for 80-90% of all cultivation.

Manual labor

Despite a high demand for these beans, the Judías de El Barco de Ávila have an annual production of a mere 60 tons. Currently there are only 60-70 cultivators left, and the beans are grown on a total of 60 hectares. Most of the production occurs on very small plots of land, and according to David Casanueva, one of the four members of the I.G.P.’s only cooperative, Cooperativa Campesina Tormes, “Absolutely nobody makes a complete living from these beans anymore. Growing beans is a supplemental activity for everyone, including those of us here at the cooperative”. To illustrate this fact he points out that the coop, which produces between 20-25% of the area’s total bean production, had 82 members when it was formed in 1987, and is now down to only four. Perhaps part of the reason for this decline is the large amount of manual labor that goes into the cultivation of these beans. While the coop has attempted to mechanize the production process wherever possible, David explains that their largest plot of land is only about two hectares, which makes it extremely difficult to maneuver with machines. In addition, the uneven terrain means that beans grown on the same plot of land will often have different moisture levels, and therefore will ripen at different times. One part of the plot may be harvested by machine, while the other has to be picked by hand at a later date.

All of these complications obviously have an influence on the commercial availability of these products. In the words of Nicolás Armenteros Manzano, the Technical Director of the Regulatory Board of the I.P.G., “It isn’t easy to find these beans. They are sold primarily in local specialty shops”. In fact, 40-45% of the total production is sold directly in the town of El Barco de Ávila. People travel here specifically to stock up before the supply runs out. Fortunately, this picturesque little town provides plenty of other reasons to spend a Saturday there in the fall. It sits prettily on the banks of the Tormes River, which is spanned by a massive, eight-arch, stone bridge that was rebuilt in the 12th century using many elements of the original Roman bridge. A few of the best-known area monuments include the 12th century Castle of Valdecorneja, the 17th century Hermitage of San Pedro del Barco, and parts of the ancient city walls. Surrounded by the Gredos Mountains, this area is also known for its stunning landscapes, and of course, great food, including game, river trout, wild mushrooms, and pork. As Nicolás points out, “There is a wonderful relationship between rural tourism and gastronomy in this area.”

History and tradition

The cultivation of Judías de El Barco de Ávila seems to have its roots firmly embedded in the town’s history and tradition. To this day it is still carried out using artisanal techniques and the manual labor of the area’s more seasoned inhabitants. Fields are plowed using donkeys, and the seed beans are hand planted in May or June. During the summer months, farmers care for the growing plants by hand, watering them and using only natural fertilizers. The bean pods are also hand picked in September, and then spread out on a flat area in the sun until the pods open. Traditionally, this process has been carried out by entire families, as was the custom of the rebusco (looking again). Following the first harvest, children would run into the fields to collect the late-ripening beans and be rewarded by receiving the money that these beans would later fetch at the market. Another family activity was the careful selection and packaging of the beans, which often took place during long winter nights at home. According to Nicolás, these traditions have been gradually fading among the younger generations.

Curiously, however, what the Judías de El Barco de Ávila are losing in terms of production and availability, they seem to be gaining in gastronomic popularity. They are sold in gourmet shops like Supreme Delicatessen, almost 200 kilometers away in Segovia, where I bought some judiones in early October after waiting in line behind two people from Madrid, who were cackling with joy at their find. They are also served in restaurants all over the area, where they are proudly identified on menus by their I.P.G. label. I asked David Casanueva what he thought made these beans so incredibly special on a gastronomic level, and he answered without hesitation. “Apart from their flavor, these beans are incredibly unique because of their skins. The soil around here is very acidic, which means that the yield is quite low, but the skins are very thin. The opposite is true for bean plants grown in alkaline soils, which have high yields but much tougher skins. The irrigation here is all runoff from snow in the Gredos Mountains, which flows down through volcanic and granitic rocks, and is therefore quite acidic”.

Different dishes

It was harder for David to make a strong statement when it came to naming his favorite dish made with judías, although he eventually decided to go with arrocina beans on salad. Nicolás, of the Regulatory Board, said that he has a weakness for judiones con almejas (clams), although the traditional way to eat the judiones in El Barco de Ávila is served with different pork products like chorizo, pig’s ear, and pig’s feet, and seasoned with pimentón, garlic and onion. To illustrate how the judiones measure up size-wise to the other varieties, only about 40 judiones weigh 100 grams, as opposed to the more medium-sized varieties like the blanca planchada and morada redonda, which have 170 beans per 100 grams, and 270 per 100 grams, respectively. Dried judiones are about the size of a Brazil nut, but cooked they expand to several times this size. The second most expensive variety (after morada redonda which sells for about 1 Euro more and has an annual production of only 1000 kilograms), judiones cost around 9-10 Euros per kilo. However, since they expand so much upon cooking, Nicolás informed me that a half-kilo can sometimes feed his family of five for several meals. The other varieties are often prepared in similar ways: stewed with different cuts of pork or other meat, and used in soups or on salads.

 At the local restaurant, Casa Lucio, the chef’s daughter Eva Cabrera (who also knows her way around the kitchen) generously gave me the family recipe for making one of the most traditional dishes from El Barco de Ávila: Judías blancas riñón with chorizo and oreja (pig’s ear). Not only do the beans have to be soaked overnight before cooking, but also it is very important that they are started in cold water with absolutely no salt. According to Eva, this is one of the secrets of the dish as “The salt makes the beans stay hard and no amount of cooking will soften them. Salt can only be added at the very end”. The beans cook with a bit of onion, garlic, pepper and a bay leaf over medium to low heat, and the chorizo and oreja are cooked separately. When the beans are soft, a refrito (fried together) is added made of garlic, onion, pimentón and flour, all sautéed in olive oil. The beans then cook a little more to absorb these new flavors.

Wherever one is lucky enough to taste these unique beans, the smooth, buttery texture of the Judías de El Barco de Ávila is something that is not soon forgotten. When the weather turns cold no dish can compare to the hearty round flavor of these beans, enriched by the tradition and hard work that can almost be tasted in every bite. It’s well worth the trip to El Barco de Ávila to buy your own!

Judías de El Barco de Ávila are so valued for their characteristic thin skins, creamy texture and unique flavor, that these seven bean varieties are among the very few beans in all of Spain to be protected by an I.G.P. designation (Indication of Geographical Protection) Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
The Queens of Beans
The Queens of Beans
The Queens of Beans
The Queens of Beans
The Queens of Beans
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