It all began with Pope Clement VII in the 16th century. He was a seed collector, it seems, and he gave some bean seeds to an Italian humanist, Valeriano, who had links with the Medicis family while they were in Florence. Valeriano shared the seeds with Clement’s niece Catherine de Medicis who, as we know, brought everything culinary that she had when she came to France at the age of fourteen in the 16th century to marry King Henry.
France Number One
And is that why France is Europe’s premier green bean producer, and why when a French person says “vegetable accompaniment” it can almost be assumed this will be green beans? Possibly. Or maybe it’s just the neat and tidy look of the green bean on a plate, its gorgeous color, its flavor which is somewhere between a sweet asparagus and a shell bean. Whatever it is, the green bean is omnipresent on the French plate from July to September when it is mounded in market stands, fresh from the soil.
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Image Vs. Flavor
Our image of the haricot vert is that slim, perfectly straight green vegetable that one can purchase in a little box, covered with plastic, perfectly aligned. This version of the haricot vert is often grown, inspected, trimmed, sized, and packed in Kenya where the green bean business is huge. The other day at the market there was a giant pile of fresh-from-the-soil green beans with a few packages of the perfectly straight and trimmed version alongside. The lady ahead of me in line chose a package saying, “I’m lazy, I don’t like to prepare the beans.”
Flavor in Favor
What she didn’t know when she made her choice is that she sacrificed both flavor and texture in favor of ease. But to each her own and I could see the plates she would serve to her family – tidy mounds of green beans next to…grilled steak, fish, or chicken.
All Shapes and Sizes
I choose from the farm, naturally, though I sacrifice visual perfection in favor of flavor and the local farm family. The haricots verts I get aren’t calibrated. In fact, they’re all over the map in terms of bent, curled, fat, slim, bright to pale green. They are sweet, crunchy and juicy when raw, and just that wonderful side of grassy when cooked. I love them during the season, serving them at all times during a meal, garnished with all manner of things and sometimes just plain, steamed then garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Here, though, I refer to my Norman roots to make them “à la Normande” which implies a bit of cream, some butter, shallot and air-cured ham. This is a dish in and of itself and one I like to serve as a first course, though in Normandy you’ll find it as a side dish. And because it’s Norman, the main course is likely to be a steak (from the Norman cow), one of the region’s fine versions of poultry or a filet of fish fresh from the boat, prepared simply, no doubt with a dash of cream and a touch of butter too.
Do as the Normans do, or do as you like and enjoy this little visit to the lushness of Normandy, the richness of its cuisine!
GREEN BEANS NORMANDE - HARICOTS VERTS A LA NORMANDE
- 1 pound;500g green beans, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 clove garlic green germ removed if necessary, minced
- 1 shallot diced
- 1/4 cup;60ml crème fraîche
- 3 tablespoons tarragon leaves
- Sea salt and freshly ground black peppercorns
- Bring water in the bottom of a steamer to a boil. Place the beans in the top of the steamer and steam them until they are tender through, about 11 minutes.
- While the green beans are steaming, melt the butter in a medium-sized, heavy skillet over medium heat with the garlic and the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallots are translucent, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
- When the green beans are cooked, remove them from the steamer. If they are very wet, transfer them to a cooling rack topped with a cotton towel, pat off the excess water, then leave them to completely dry at room temperature.
- Coarsely chop the tarragon.
- Stir the tarragon and the cream into the garlic and shallots, and heat through over medium heat. Add the beans and toss them in the mixture until they are hot through, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.