Thursday January 09, 2014 | 01:00 PM

Image of a Maine lumber camp from the Patten Lumbermen's Museum.

People have been growing beans in Maine for over 500 years – since the days of the first American Indians. From Saco to Caribou, they have been served for breakfast, lunch, and most famously Saturday night dinners in homes, churches, and formerly logging camps.

Phaseolus vulgaris, or the common bean, is arguably one of the most important vegetables in New England’s culinary history. For the region’s earliest settlers meals were largely dependent on beans and other crops they found either domesticated by their New World neighbors or those they brought over and were suitable with the region’s soil and climate conditions.

Across New England, and in Maine “bean hole” suppers became a historical marker of Maine’s culinary culture. According to the University of Maine Folklife Center’s foodways research, Maine’s Saturday bean supper is a tradition that originated with the pilgrims, who would cook enough so that they would not have to cook on the Sabbath. The beans cooked all day Saturday, and were eaten for dinner that night and the following morning as well.

In the 1800s in central and northern Maine bean hole suppers became a convenient and inexpensive way to feed logging camp crews. The logging camp tradition of cooking beans in a fire pit continues in the Folk Arts Area at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Common Ground Fair every September.

The communal aspect of the tradition still takes place in churches, firehouses, and grange halls throughout Maine (check with your local church or town office for information). The events always take place on a Saturday and usually cost between $5 – 10 to attend. Menus feature one or more styles of home-baked beans, hot casseroles, chilled salads, and homemade pie.

It was chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, who opened my eyes to the beautiful world of beans when he told me “Beans express terroir as much as any plant in Maine.” Recently we spoke further about this - one of his most passionate subjects – yes, beans.

“There was a time when every region and in some cases every family or groups of families had it’s own favorite bean, maybe locally adapted for certain growing conditions or maybe they were just preferred in the kitchen because that’s the bean grandmother used,” he said.

“Using what’s at hand and what’s in season is true New England cooking,” he said. “Basically knowing the methods for cooking or precooking beans is the way to figure out which combined various proteins with beans to make hardy savory incredibly satisfying dishes.” Hayward said his neighbor calls beans ballasts – as in ballasts for a ship. “They are so satisfying and keep the body energized and going in very, very cold weather,” he said. “I think that’s why New Englanders have always thought of beans as the perfect winter food.”

To get to the root of what Hayward was talking about I spoke with two sources for cooking beans - Patti Qua of The Beanery in Exeter (who Hayward has been purchasing beans from since the late 1980s when he learned about them from Russell Libby) and Jason Osborne of Osborne Family Farm in Charleston, a relatively new bean grower.

According to Qua, people want Marifax beans Downeast. “When you get down towards New Hampshire, they really love Jacob’s Cattle and they don’t care about Yellow Eyes at all and around here the old timers it’s all Yellow Eyes,” she said. Osborne agreed, telling me where he is in Central Maine, people want Yellow Eyes. “Go into Vermont and they want Soldier beans, New Hampshire - Soldier beans and Jacob’s Cattle, Downeast – Marifax and Yellow Eyes,” he said.

Qua, who has been farming since 1980 and currently grows 14 varieties of beans on 20 acres, believes no two beans are alike. She chooses which varieties to grow by how beautiful she finds them. Each variety of bean has different characteristics – flavor, texture – some become soft when cooked, while some stay true to form. “Sulphur beans almost have a sweet kind of taste to them and they are a softer bean,” she said. “The Lows Champion are a mealy bean. The Calypsos seem to me have a kind of nutty flavor. I don’t see a difference in Soldiers and Yellow Eyes, but people who like Soldier swear there is.”

Jacob's Cattle Beans, part of Medomak Valley High School's Seed Heirloom Seed Project 

Beans Patti Qua grows:
Yellow Eye – Qua developed over seven years by sorting out Yellow Eyes that were Maine Yellow Eyes, which have a lot more color to them. According to Qua there are umpteen varieties and oddball names for Yellow Eye beans. Primarily ivory colored with tiny mustard colored markings surrounding the 'eye' on the inner seam of the bean. Mild flavor, good soup bean.

Soldier - According to Qua, this is the second most popular bean in Maine. It is a white kidney-shaped bean with a distinctive maroon marking on the eye that resembles an old-fashioned toy soldier. Sometimes referred to or sold as a European Soldier Bean, which Qua said is actually a variety of this bean. “The Soldier Bean was brought into Maine, because it had a shorter growing season, but did not yield as well as people would have liked,” Qua said. “The European Soldier found its way here and though a much bigger bean that takes a lot longer to mature, people swapped over because the yield is so much better.” However, she added harvesting them or any long season bean can be problematic in this climate due to fall rains. Mild flavor, good soup bean.

Jacob’s Cattle (sometimes referred to as a ‘Trout Bean’) - Plump, white, kidney-shaped white bean with maroon markings. From Prince Edward Island, legend has it that it was a gift from Maine’s Passamaquoddy Indians to Joseph Clark, the first white child born in Lubec, Maine. Full, distinct flavor it stands up well to plenty of seasoning. Kidney – light red coloring.

Marifax (also known as Marfax)– A dense, chewy bean with plenty of flavor. Both Qua and Osborne heard it was introduced by the U.S. Government during the Depression to help alleviate poverty. According to Qua, it is a good fit for the region’s short growing season. Osborne, who also grows this bean, said if you want a thick gravy for your baked beans you use Marifax, which is a firm bean, but if you want a thin gravy you use Yellow Eye.

Vermont Cranberry – According to the Vermont Bean Seed Company - An old-time New England heirloom dating back to the 1700's. Brightly colored, red-mottled 6" long pods are borne on vigorous, upright bush-type plants. Their sweet, succulent flavor is wonderful in soups, for baking and in a variety of other delicious ways.

Black Turtle – Small black, kidney-shaped bean with a particularly rich and full flavor. Recommended with rice and meat, particularly good in soups and casseroles.

Swedish Brown -
 Small oval bean.

Sulphur or China Yellow - New England heirloom dating before 1870. Early-maturing variety good for short-season gardens. Small, plump, pale yellow seeds are larger than Navy beans. Good soup bean.

Calypso –Patti describes as “a ying and yang black and white bean.”

Bumble Bee – Patti describes it as having an eye that’s the color of a Soldier, but the shape of a Yellow Eye. She said the bean’s characteristics are similar to the Yellow Eye – mild flavor, good soup bean. A heritage variety from Maine. Named Bumble Bee for its large size.

King Early (sometimes referred to as ‘the King of Early’) – a large, mealy bean.

Cannellini - A traditional white Italian bean. Good for baking.

Lows Champion - An heirloom dark red dry bean noted for its sweet flavor.

Cooking with beans:
Chef/owner Andrew Taylor of Eventide Oyster Co. and Hugo’s purchases Qua’s beans for both restaurants. “Beans are very important to the history and culture of Maine and Portland and particularly Downeast and up north in the logging communities,” he said. “Bean hole beans were a staple of loggers cuisine so that was why we felt it was important to include baked beans in our Eventide menu as an absolute staple.” Taylor and his partners tested several of Qua’s varietals and chose the Swedish Brown for the baked beans. “It’s a darker bean to start with, usually people go with a white bean, but we just felt the Swedish Brown has this incredible texture, when cooked properly it’s incredibly fudgy and meatier than almost any other bean and we just felt from our extensive testing that was the one we all loved.“ At Hugo’s patrons will find Qua’s Sulphur beans in various dishes.

Chef Abby Harmon of Caiola’s has been using Qua’s beans since the restaurant opened eight years ago. Harmon is particularly fond of the Marifax, which she uses for the baked beans. “My grandmother used to make baked beans with those, a very traditional Colman’s dry mustard recipe and I love them,” she said. “They don’t lose their shape, they are delicious.” Most recently, Harmon used Qua’s Lows Champion beans to make a Polenta Lasagna.

Like Harmon, Sam Hayward is also a fan of the Marifax, what he considers one of Northern New England’s great heirloom beans. At Fore Street he also uses Qua’s Vermont Cranberry, Soldier, Swedish Brown, Sulphur, and his personal favorite Jacob’s Cattle. Hayward is, as he said, still mourning the loss of Qua’s Flageolet beans, which he always used in Cassoulet, and she stopped growing three years ago. Qua said she thinks the bean is wonderful, but the logistics of harvesting them before the plant died to get the green color (and so they retain a fresh flavor) and then getting them to the drying racks (which she built to force air through them fast) was too problematic.

Growing and Harvesting:
Beans are generally planted close to Memorial Day and harvested by Labor Day to avoid the fall rains. In 2012, Qua planted late due to wet weather and did not get a good harvest window. Last year, she said she planted thru the end of June for the same reason, and had to sweat it out all season.

Most of the beans are harvested at 85-95 days, but some like the Marifax and Jacob’s Cattle are earlier harvesting beans and the Soldier and Cannellini are quite late. Qua explained you want to harvest when the plants are dried down and the pods are crispy, so ideally the beans are hard.

Harvesting she said only takes two to three days, but then you need a window of sometimes two days where they can sit on the ground once pulled and dry down.

Osborne, who grows four varieties of beans on 30 acres, started growing beans with the previous owner of the farm six years ago, and on his own two years ago. He explained beans need to be harvested as dry as possible. They then go through a process called winnowing to remove foreign matter and are then put into burlap bags. Osborne, who learned much of what he knows from old-timers, puts the bags up on the floor in two rows about 1 – ½ feet apart to form a sort of tunnel. He then puts a box fan at the end to let air blow. This drying process takes one to three weeks depending on the weather. If it rains he has to turn the fan off to avoid adding moisture back into the beans.

Recipes:
Sam Hayward family Campfire Beans – A favorite Hayward family bean dish he prepared on camping trips.
Need a big heavy LeCreuset type enamel pot.
Soak and par-cook the Jacob’s Cattle beans separately. In the big cast iron caramelize a lot of onions with a little bit of fresh garlic ground with olive oil slowly and gently as if making French onion soup until it’s sort of marmalade texture and golden brown. Then splash in some good Maine organic apple cider vinegar and boil up to capture the onion flavor. Add maple syrup, Raye’s mustard, salt and pepper – simmer that and add par-cooked beans and enough of the liquor (cooking water) to barely cover the beans. Put the LeCreuset directly on the embers of the fire scraped over to one side and gently cooked until done.
(Sam said also works with Marifax, which have a creamier texture on the interior and somewhat earthier flavor.)

Cannellini Bean Stew – from Sam Hayward
Cannellini beans with plenty of roasted garlic stewed together, fresh herbs – rosemary, mint, flat-leaf parsley, bay leaves, and summer savory and any stock have on hand (chicken, duck, vegetable or lamb stock would be fantastic). Sam likes to add steamed shellfish right in – could be hard clams, squid, any combination of cephalopods and bivalves he said would be terrific steamed right in the mixture.

Maine-based historian Sandra Oliver’s recipes for Open Faced Baked Bean Sandwiches and Baked Bean Soup can be found here

Buy beans:
Farm Fresh Connection carries most of Patti Qua’s beans. The primarily sell five or 25 lb bags to restaurants and institutions, however individuals can purchase beans at their farmstand (open year-round) located at 19 Pleasant Hill Road in Freeport. 

To purchase Osborne Farm beans please visit their website

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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