(Chevrier Flageolet Beans)
From our birth America has had a long-distance affair with things French. Thomas Jefferson loved wines from Bordeaux. Ben Franklin loved several French women. Franklin Roosevelt loved Noilly Prat Vermouth. And George W. is said to be ‘fond’ of something he calls “fries.” As the French food writer Brillat-Savarin said, “Show me what you eat and I’ll show you what you are.”
For me, it’s beans. French beans, of course (That’s not to mention white Burgundy, champagne, cheese and Calvados). Many hundreds of bean varieties have appeared since the beans were first brought from South America to Europe in the 16th century. But it is in France where the bean was given its due as something delicate, fresh and colorful. It is the French who were amongst the first to develop the bean for the plate rather than the animal pail.
The Flageolet bean had its beginnings in France in the early 1800s. The French were making refinements in dwarf bean types that had first appeared in England. These early Flageolets were red, white or black but their tastes were described as similar. In 1878, however, a farmer near Paris named Gabriel Chevrier introduced something entirely new. His bean was light green in color with a smallish squared shape. And most importantly the Chevrier bean had a wonderful light, fresh taste. It was an immediate sensation with fine French chefs.
Today the Flageolet bean remains a ‘classic’ in a number of French dishes and it is considered a bean of “refinement.” The original Chevrier bean, however, has largely been replaced by ‘improvements’ such as Flavert, Soissons Vert and Triomphe des Chasiss. In America any flageolet bean is difficult to find and the most common strain is the oddly named “Flagrano.” These new introductions have disease resistance that Chevrier lacks and they tend not to display Chevrier’s tiresome habit of falling over. Still, a few gardeners with supple spines and a sanguine outlook about occasional crop failures have kept the original Chevrier Vert in private circulation.
I have grown both Flagrano and the Chevrier Flageolet bean. Neither seemed particularly keen to grow or produce well in my Northern California garden. My guess is that they would prefer a cooler summer climate, better soil and more water. So would I.
Flageolet beans are typically used as a dry bean but for a short time in August they can be found in France as a “semi-dry” or “shelly bean.” I’ve read that the old time French farming technique to produce them is to pull up the entire bean plant when the pods are filled. When the pods are slightly wrinkled they are ready to be shelled. The technique sounds credible since it is the same used in Appalachia to made “shucky beans.”
The size of my 2007 Flageolet harvest was so-so. The flavor and texture, however, were anything but. They are tender, slightly sweet and have a fresh flavor that is akin to a baby Lima bean. Merci, Monsier Chevrier!
These Chevrier Flageot beans were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon, Sonoma County, California.
Seed Source: Private Collection, Paris, France.
Vegetables of Interest, 2007