29 April 2012

Haricots de Soissons and cornbread

Our bread delivery service suddenly stopped on Thursday, with no warning. La porteuse de pain ("the bread-bringer") stopped by Tuesday morning as usual, and she didn't say anything about vacations or boulangerie closures. Usually she gives us advance notice when she won't be making her rounds, and even leaves us a little printed note specifying stop and re-start dates.

On Friday morning Walt drove down to the village — it's two miles — to see if he could buy a baguette and find out what was going on. The boulangerie was closed, with the big window shades pulled down. Fermeture à partir du mardi 24 jusqu'au dimanche 6 mai, a note on the door said. Mystère, for us.

I hope the baker will come back. The unannounced closure is so unusual that it makes me wonder what is really going on. This baker, who took over the business a couple of years ago when the old baker and his family moved to Saumur, makes some of the best bread around. His bread is so good that I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up in a bigger town where he'd have more customers.

American-style cornbread made with yogurt
instead of buttermilk

Walt drove into Saint-Aignan to get bread from another baker there, whose baguettes are also very good. On Thursday, we had thrown together a pan of cornbread at the last minute, when 11:00 came without the familiar horn toot announcing the arrival of our daily baguette. Cornbread is easy and fast, as long as you have the ingredients: cornmeal, flour, sour milk (or yogurt), an egg, and some baking powder.

Cooked Soissons beans with a teaspoon for scale

And cornbread is good — no doubt about that. It was perfect with the lunch we were having: Soissons beans and sausages. Haricots de Soissons are giant white beans that I've written about before, here. Soissons is a town in the north of France, in Picardy and near Laon and Reims (Champagne), and I did a post about it here.

Soissons beans cooked with Toulouse sausages

Soissons beans are a little like big white Lima beans, which are also called butter beans in some places. They certainly aren't native to Soissons, but they've been a major crop and gourmet specialty there since the mid-1700s. Like black, kidney, white, and pinto beans, they were originally a South American plant. Beans were brought to Europe during the period of exploration, a few centuries ago.

Another shot just because...

The difference between Soissons beans and big Lima beans is that the 'soissons' [swah-'sõ] are fatter and keep their shape better when you cook them. The skins don't slide off as easily. Still, you have to cook them at very low temperature for a long time, after soaking them in cold water for 12 hours. Then other day, I cooked them at a bare simmer for three hours, at least. And then I put them in a baking dish with poached sausages — Toulouse sausages, in this case — and let them good for another hour at 325ºF, until the sausages had browned.

The beans are flavored with diced onions and celery.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the acceptance of the potato in France as food fit for people and not just farm animals nearly killed off the Soissons bean. It had been the major source of dietary starch until Parmentier popularized the spud. The cultivation of the big beans declined over the decades, until a group of bean farmers around the town of Soissons started growing and selling them again. To promote Soissons beans and encourage production, 15 or 20 years ago they formed an association called La Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Haricot de Soissons.

Walt put some chipotle tabasco sauce on his beans.

Actually, the beans I cooked the other day came from a supermarket up in Picardy, but they were imported from Spain — but I don't know where they were grown. I've never found them here in the Loire Valley. Often when I buy bags of dried beans here, they are imported from Portugal but the label will specify where they were grown (often in the U.S. for black-eyed peas or pinto beans).

Whatever the case, it seems that the climate and soil in northern France are perfect for Soissons beans. The mild weather encourages the beans to grow big and fat and to remain tender. The skins don't toughen up the way they would under a hotter sun. They really are excellent.


  1. Hi Ken, I've recently discovered that our corner Franprix carries "lait fermenté". Sometimes it's in the milk section, sometimes in the yogurt. It's about as thick as yogurt. I don't know if your local U or Intermarché would have it, but I think it might depend on the size of the local North African population. Our Franprix is the new version of the corner store known as "chez Momo" and is still run by Mohammed. He was surprised when I bought the buttermilk and I told him many American recipes called for it.

  2. Hi Ellen, I have seen and bought that once or twice. Also goes by the name lait ribot, I think, from Brittany. The yogurt works just fine, though, as does "soured" milk — milk with a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice mixed in. Finding cornmeal is always an adventure...

  3. There is one native European bean, the broad-bean of fava, but it's very nice to have the variety. Online, it looks as though these haricots soissons are expensive. Did you think so? I'm always inspired to try something new when I read about what you're cooking.

  4. Inspired, moi aussi, just like Kristi :) That looked quite yummy. Those are huge beans, aren't they!

    I hope you'll keep us posted about what is up with the boulanger. Maybe there's a death in the family?

  5. Ken, the cornbread looks delicious, I would love to have your recipe. Thanks

  6. I hope the bread lady returns in May. She must have had an emergency of some kind or just forgot to notify you.

    The cornbread and the beans look delicious.

  7. An emergency, for sure, was what I was thinking since you have told us how conscientious the baker has been in the past about letting their customers know when their bread would not be available.

    Quick thinking to make a quick bread (as they were called when I took home economics) - cornbread!

    Your beans and sausage meal must have already have been planned before you knew there wasn't going to be a bread delivery; yet cornbread with beans is a no-brainer - right? Excellent choice!

    Mary in Oregon

  8. BettyAnn, I'm not sure where I got this recipe — somewhere on the 'net. It's the one I made this time. I substitute half a cup of plain yogurt and half a cup of skim milk for the one cup of buttermilk, and I used duck fat this time as a substitute for Crisco, which we can't get in France. Vegetable oil would be fine too.

    Danny Gaulden's Cornbread
    from Danny’s Barbecue in Cary NC (Raleigh suburb)

    1 cup cornmeal
    ¼ cup flour
    ½ tsp. salt
    ¼ tsp. soda
    1 tsp. baking powder
    1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
    1 Tbsp. sugar
    1 egg
    1 cup buttermilk

    Here's how we do our cornbread, and it is an Old South recipe.

    In a bowl, mix the cornmeal, flour, salt, soda, and baking powder. Mix in the vegetable oil, sugar, egg, and buttermilk.

    Rub some Crisco on the bottom and sides of a 10" cast iron skillet. Put skillet in oven at 425 degrees and heat till hot. Skillet must be HOT, and slightly smoking. Sprinkle the bottom of skillet with cornmeal after removing from oven, (this helps keep it from sticking also) then pour in the cornbread mixture. Try to time it so that ingredients are mixed just a minute or two before taking skillet out of oven. Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. It may take you a time or two, to get this right, but is well worth the effort.

  9. It could be an unexpected closure due to a catastrophe of some sort.

  10. A recipe from a BBQ restaurant in NC is sure to be good, thanks!


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