Heirloom foods were all the rage a decade or more ago. Remember? Heirloom tomatoes, apples, potatoes (!), and yes beans started showing up everywhere from farmer's markets to restaurants.
The Popularity of Heirlooms
The widespread modernization and industrialization of farming in the U.S. drove agriculture to producing more food per acre. This drive for improved yields and disease resistance made produce cheaper, more available, and more uniform. But unfortunately, in many cases, also less flavorful and less nutritious.
This, among other reasons, motivated seed savers to become stewards of the genetic diversity embedded in heirloom seeds. And now heirloom seeds is a big business.
The question is what does that mean to us the consumer, and are heirlooms really worth the extra cost?
Since I eat a lot of beans, I focused my research there.
What are Heirloom Beans?
By definition, an heirloom plant is a varietal that has been passed down through families and / or farms from an earlier period in time. Historically, families saved seeds from good harvests, and even took cuttings from their vegetable gardens when they moved.
In a sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest contest, the tastiest often were the ones preserved through generations.
Are Heirloom Beans Better?
Heirloom beans cost more and are not as easily found. So, are they worth it?
The answer is absolutely yes.
They Taste Better
A lot better. It's kind of like comparing a Pinot from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to a box wine with a spout.
There's greater complexity to heirloom beans, as compared to the bland, mass-produced beans. And this brings bean dishes to another level.
There's a Wide Variety
When you go on a website that sells heirloom beans, the first thing you notice is the wide variety of beans to choose from, versus what might be on your grocery shelves.
There are so many beans I've never heard of, and it's interesting to learn a little about their history and try different flavors.
Heirloom Beans are Fresher
Beans on the shelf at your local market can be as old as 10 years, and are often at least 5 years old. Fresher beans means they cook faster and are more nutritious.
And More Digestible
A big advantage of fresher beans is that they are more easily digestible (aka causes less flatulence).
So, yes, it's definitely worth the effort to find and purchase heirloom beans.
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Where Can I Purchase Heirloom Beans?
You might be lucky enough to find them at your market. For example, I used to be able to find Rancho Gordo heirloom beans at a local market when I lived in the (San Francisco) Bay Area. But I was near the town where Rancho Gordo is located, and I've never seen them in any of my markets in Tahoe.
If you live in the Sacramento, California area, I can highly recommend Chili Smith's in Carmichael. They have an extensive variety of heirloom beans all grown in California, and have a store in Carmichael that's well-stocked.
Chili Smith Heirloom Beans
In case you're not familiar with Chili Smith, they have more than 20 varieties of heirloom beans, all sourced through Mohr-Fry Ranches in Lodi, California.
If you don't live close enough to swing by to pick up a few bags, just order your beans online through their website. Some of them have such fun names like Pebbles and Painted Pony.
Or, my personal favorite name, Oja de la Cabra (Eye of the Goat). When you see the beans on their site, you'll understand how they got that name.
I recently tried Chili Smith Black Garbanzo Heirloom Beans, which is officially my new favorite bean. Seriously, it might be the best bean I've ever had. They're a little smaller than the cream chickpeas we're all more familiar with, and taste slightly nutty with a fuller flavor. And I swear I can taste a little celery and herbs in the beans.
If you're interested in trying some new beans that just might be the best you've ever tried, you need to know Chili Smith.
Black Chana Masala
This weekend, look for a recipe using these Black Garbanzo Heirlooms in your inbox that I've made twice now, and can't seem to get enough of. It's a Black Chana Masala, which means Black Chickpea Curry to some of us. And I infused a pinch of Mexico into it, because that's how I roll.
Next month we'll look at more dried beans, and all the ways you can cook and use them. The tips will be applicable to most any beans you have, but as for me, I'll be using Chili Smith Heirlooms.
Note to Locals: If you live local to the Tahoe area, the Tahoe Food Hub also sells them. I ordered a produce box just this morning for a Friday pickup in Truckee, and saw that their beans are one of the choices I can add to my box!
Disclaimer: One of the big benefits of being a food blogger is that a lot of people send me product to try. Only if I love the product, will you hear about it here on my blog. The kind folks at Chili Smith sent me 4 different kinds of beans to try.