Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

Heirloom Beans

by Michael MacCaskey

It was 11 years ago that Elizabeth Berry and her husband, Fred, moved from Berkeley, California, to northern New Mexico. Fred had found an old ranch just north of Abiquiu. Along the route of the old Conestoga trail between Santa Fe and Green Rivers, it is reachable now only by a 17-mile dirt road and is surrounded by protected land. Of course, one of the first improvements to the farm was a garden. It shortly astounded them both with its beauty and productivity. Soon came an association with Mark Miller and his now-famous Coyote Cafe. For him Berry planted an acre of specialty crops, such as arugula, baby corn and squash blossoms. Thus began her transformation from gardener to market farmer.

Berry now has five acres near a highway where she produces gourmet vegetables for 25 top chefs in New Mexico. They vie for her vegetables because they are beautiful and because she always has some new and interesting variety. And if the chefs want to choose the varieties, so much the better. One mentioned that he couldn't find an eggplant as good as one he had in Italy. Berry searched for it, and soon he was the primary customer of her 'Alfredo' eggplant. Almost from the beginning she has organized large, chefs-only tastings of tomatoes (60 kinds), squash (35 kinds) and other vegetables to further educate the palates of her sophisticated clients.

Bean Beginnings

About the same time she started the market garden, Berry heard about the Seed Savers Exchange and admired the group's devotion to preserving endangered heirloom and open-pollinated vegetable varieties. So she volunteered to grow samples of anything they wanted. One of the bean samples was, in Berry's words, "a mess"; that is, it contained a mishmash of different varieties. She returned a small sample to Seed Savers and kept the bulk of the crop. After a few years of trying to market these beans and others she had started to grow,she decided that chefs-only tastings might be the answer for dried beans, too.

The first bean tasting was in 1989. Berry cooked 23 varieties of dried beans and served them plain, with no seasonings and without even salt. Her rules were simple: Chefs wanting to participate had to commit to buying a commercial quantity of at least one bean for their restaurant the following year. They also had to produce one recipe featuring that bean. It worked. Berry collected orders and recipes, and the chefs were happy to have an unusual or unique bean to offer in their restaurants.

Most important, an heirloom was freed from the collections of specialists and grown in commercial quantity. "People talk at length about saving heirloom beans," says Berry. "But what good is it to have only collections of heirloom beans? It's better to reintroduce them to the world, and the best way to do that is through creative chefs." Hence the idea of reintroducing beans became Berry's mission. One summer she grew 65 varieties of beans, most of them from the Seed Savers Exchange, for chefs-only taste testings. The beans we feature here are the cream of the crop from the six tastings she's held to date.

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