Masai Snap Beans
(Phaseolus vulgaris v. Masai)
There are few more sacred beliefs amongst seed collectors than the notion that heirloom vegetables are manifestly superior to ‘modern vegetables.’ There is, of course, ample evidence to support that proposition and it is as close as the nearest grocery store. Still, the assumed superiority of plant varieties selected fifty years ago vs. those from 20 or 2 years ago seems arbitrary without closer examination. And while I consider myself an “heirloom man” by nature I’m also on board with Mark Twain when he quipped that “All generalizations are false, including this one.”
For some years I’ve grown haricot vert (aka ‘French/filet) beans with an open mind towards the ‘moderns.’ My wayward journey away from heirlooms can be traced back to Triumph de Farcy, an older (heirloom?) French bean that is widely recommend by French growers and chefs. In my garden, however, Farcy was more fussy than fine. The work necessary to find only the slender & tender pods required the timing of a stopwatch and the working conditions of a slave. Since that experience I’ve been sure to include a new modern hericot vert bean in my garden plan each season. Happily, the French are always up to something bean-wise and this year’s bean throw down featured the modern “Masai” snap bean.
I am unable to find any meaningful information about the background of the Masai bean other than it comes from an agribusiness giant which doesn’t reveal much about how they create new plant varieties. I can report that it readily pops out of the ground in 6-7 days with the vigor one might expect from a hybrid bean. The foliage is adequate but not lush. The plants are upright and appear to hold the pods well above the ground which is a good feature to prevent the consequences of pods-on-soil. The plants freely bloomed despite a short period of shock after a sweltering heat wave and I’m picking the first crop of pods about 2.5 weeks post bloom. The pods are green, of course, but not glossy. The tips are slightly curved but none are ‘hooked.’ The pods can be detached from the plant easily (low ‘PDF’ or “pod detachment force” in the parlance of bean breeders) and I’ve broken few pods despite my casual approach to picking.
The attached picture shows a small early harvest of Masai beans. For the technophiles out there I recommend picking haricot vert beans at a diameter of about 5mm which corresponds to the bean industry’s sieve scale at the high end of “Sieve 1”. Commercial bean production sorts beans by diameter and length. The Sieve scale parses beans by diameter using a scale of 1-7 with the larger numbers corresponding to fatter beans. Commercial growers aim for the fresh bean market with beans at Sieve 4 diameter or about 22/64th of an inch (8 ¾ mm).
The harvest diameter of a snap bean is a compromise between a more tender (thinner) bean vs. a greater yielding (fatter) bean. In addition to the tender vs. tough consideration is shelf life. Snap beans loose their ‘snap’ and become limp as they loose 5% or more their weight. Beans picked when very thin are prone to dehydration and consequently have much shorter ‘shelf lives’. Some commercial bean varieties attempt to skirt this issue by breeding more fiber into the pods but the consumer is dealt a cruel surprise in the form of a slender, tough bean.
As noted above I pick my beans at about 5mm in diameter which is so thin that many commercial processors would discard them as a ‘cull.’ Even more fanatical, however, are some chefs who insist on beans little bigger than a comma. Personally I find that 5mm provides all the tenderness and yield that I desire. Shelf life? It’s about 10 minutes from garden-to-plate at my house. That’s plenty of time.
These Masai beans were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Vegetables of Interest, 2008