One of our favourite legume dishes in the UK are tinned baked beans, which have increased in popularity after World War II. They are a popular and durable food made from a form of the common bean Phaseolus vulgaris originating in Mexico. The common bean was brought to by explorers from different European countries. For example the Portuguese brought them to Europe and Africa in connection with the slave trade. A great bean cuisine developed in Europe, particularly in France. In Jersey the bean pots (known as a Marmite in France) – or casseroles based on beans (Cassoulet) were traditionally hugely important food.
It has been suggested that Jersey has played a significant role in the story of the humble baked bean. Sir Walter Raleigh was governor of Jersey and it is possible that he introduced common beans into the island. They became part of the Jersey cuisine.
In the nineteenth century common beans were taken back to the New World by European settlers including fishermen from Jersey. Bean casseroles were also important in North America. In the 19th century European emigrants to North America took their crops with them and so the Navy Bean ended up on the East Coast of the USA, where a local dish was developed ‘Boston Baked Beans’ with tomato sauce.
Heinz saw the potential of canning this dish. It proved to be a cheap and nutritious food for feeding troops in the first and WWII. Baked beans in America were not originally in tomato sauce – export ones were. It was only during WWII that the large-scale canning of beans with tomato sauce was developed to feed the military and other institutions and the canned baked beans known as BITS (Beans in tomato sauce) in the USA became a large-scale commercial item. Part of the advantage of the tomato sauce was to make a more acid product less likely to grow Clostridium botulinum but also to enhance flavour and appearance. The tomato sauce recipes became highly evolved and commercially secret but included some interesting spices. The beans used for BITS were required by the canning companies to have the least possible taste of their own so not to interfere with the sauce!
Before WWII a variety of bean dishes flourished in Britain. During WWII. British servicemen got to sample US rations and got the taste for baked beans. Britain had to import navy beans to meet our needs, because they mature too late for UK conditions – until recently when earlier maturing type was developed that can be grown in Southern Britain. Navy beans as well as other kinds such as cassoulet flat white beans and small red kidney beans production has been restricted in the UK due to the lack of aid support under the Common Agricultural Policy. This is about to change and we could see far more navy beans grown in the UK from 2015 under the new decoupled method of farm subsidies where farmers grow what the market demands. However for this to happen there is a need for education and enlightenment of the market and the public about the potential offered by British grown baked beans and other beans.
This article was written following conversations with Colin Leakey who advised H.J. Heinz Company on bean biodiversity.