The Most Famous Bean in Spain

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Photo by Ardo Beltz/Wikimedia Commons


A couple of months ago, Tolosa held its bean fest. Few are the places in this world in which everything stops to celebrate a bean, but Tolosa takes its beans seriously.

And rightly so: the alubias de Tolosa, or Basque black beans, are an extraordinary product. When the bean was recently awarded a denominación de origin and was added to Slow Food's Ark of Taste, little Tolosa was suddenly on the gastronomic map. This has been a bit of a surprise for the town's residents, for whom the bean is simply a part of local culture and daily life—a cozy dish your grandmother might make on a chilly day.

Bean-based pintxos are served in every bar, and bushels of prize-winning beans are auctioned in the marketplace.

Above and beyond all the fuss, the bean is delicious: black and shiny, fading to purple when cooked, buttery and fine-skinned, with a taste very much its own.

Whereas most recipes in the spectrum of Iberian legume cookery require that beans be soaked in water and then cooked with some kind of pig product (ham bone, chorizo, morcilla, ears, snouts...) the alubia de Tolosa is for purists. Locals add the dry beans to cold water in earthenware pots, bring them to a boil, add a bit of olive oil, and leave them to simmer for about three hours. The only tolerated deviations from this orthodoxy are some onion or a bay leaf. No spices, no tomatoes, and usually no meat. Just beans.

During the annual mid-November bean fest, a group called the Brotherhood of the Bean (really!) produces this delicacy in massive vats and distributes it in the streets of Tolosa as part of a four-day event that also includes cooking competitions, street performances, and concerts. Bean-based pintxos are served in every bar, and bushels of prize-winning beans are auctioned in the marketplace.

International attention has done some good for the bean and those who cultivate it: this year's harvest was almost certainly the biggest ever, responding to an enormous increase in demand. You can order the highest quality beans from La Tienda or through the Association of Producers of Tolosa Beans, which bears the Basque regional quality certification.

If prepared correctly and without too much stirring or worrying, the beans should come out sleek and smooth, their skins unbroken, in a velvety purple soup. Typically, cabbage or kale is simply wilted with a little garlic and oil and served on the side. Morcilla (black sausage) or chorizo can be fried and added to the fully cooked beans or eaten separately. Accompany the meal with a couple of pickled peppers—preferably from the nearby town of Ibarra—and you have a perfect Tolosan feast.

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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