The Governor's Bean

Posted on April 16, 2015 by Cape Rebel

From Leipoldt's Cellar & Kitchen
by C Louis Leipoldt


It would be hard to find something more genuinely Afrikaans in a vegetable garden than the good old goewerneursboontjie, or hereboontjie as it is also called. This is not something you’re likely to find discussed in any overseas cookbook. Take for instance the Larousse Gastronomique, that comprehensive manual for the modern chef. It doesn’t even mention our admirable goewerneursboontjie, which is even overlooked in Afrikaans cookbooks, although here and there you may come across a casual reference to ‘dry beans’.

Yet what could be finer than an old-fashioned goewerneursboontjie of the large variety? When green, they are magnificent; but it’s a shame to pick them before they have reached maturity, and they taste much better when they have ripened in the sun. They are at their best when the pods have just opened, the two halves curling up to expose the treasure they have guarded with such care. And how splendid are the colours they display, subtle hues of red, black-brown, white and yellow? They lie there like fragments of the finest Amandola marble. It’s true that we rarely see the goewerneursboontjie in all its old-fashioned glory these days, and it seems as if the species has become smaller, more wrinkled and less colourful. There are even some pale-yellow, dirty-white descendants available – inferior tasting South American types that are far less pleasing aesthetically.

So try to obtain the good, old-fashioned variety if you can, preferably from a farm somewhere in the southwestern Cape. Go for those that have grown in river soil and held their ground against the ravages of the southeaster. And please don’t treat them like ordinary dry beans. They are aristocrats, entitled to their privileges, and they have their likes and their dislikes. So keep them properly dry and well cleaned in an air-tight jar, well out of reach, where there is no chance of the jar being, as we children used to mutter in youthful, mock astonishment, mysteriously smashed by inexplicable mishap. And don’t for a minute think this is too much to ask of an overworked housewife. The effort is handsomely repaid, for it preserves the flavor. As Ayah Mina, Anna or whoever it was that taught me respect for the goewerneursboontjie always used to say, ‘The taste, Kleinbaas, the taste is what makes it worth its weight in gold.’

To cook them, remove them from their air-sealed jar – a cupful is enough to start with. Examine them, and discard any that are not pristinely pure, perfect and pleasing to the eye. Wash them in cold water to get rid of any lingering grains, then place them in a clear saucepan and cover them with tap water – or fountain water if there is no tap. Let them soak awhile, but definitely not too long. Even when it comes to the lesser dry-bean types, I am always horrified when I read the instruction in a cookbook to ‘soak them overnight in cold water’. Phantoms of Carême and La Chapelle! That is no way to treat a governor’s bean. Too long a soaking stimulates growth, resuscitating a dormant lust for life and activating that most mysterious of chemical metabolisms that can ruin the taste in an instant. So soak them at most for an hour and a half, no longer.

Drain off the water and submerge them again, this time in lukewarm water with a pinch of salt. But in heaven’s name, no bicarbonate of soda.

Nothing, alas, can preserve the magnificent colour of the beans. When cooked, they lose their colour and turn brown – light brown when cooked slowly and thoroughly, as they ought to be, or a darker brown when cooked too fast. Keep the lid on the saucepan, but give it an occasional shake, and add warm water from time to time so that the beans remain submerged. When soft, take the saucepan from the fire, drain the water in a colander, and shake the beans dry.

For those connoisseurs who prefer a simple, pure vegetable taste, the beans are now cooked and readyfor the table. They're especially good when cold, for it is then that they have the genuinegoewerneursboontjie taste – something in between that of a chestnut and a dried medlar. You can serve them with a sour sauce, or as a salad with a simple mixture of vinegar and pepper, a touch of mustard and a dash of oil.

But what about something more sophisticated, somewhat more refined? There are those who are not content with sheer simplicity, who prefer the lily gilded, a whiff of perfume with the fragrant mignonette.

For the benefit of these connoisseurs, return the beans to the saucepan with a pinch of pepper, ginger and mace. Add a cup of meat or chicken soup, and cook slowly with the lid on. In another saucepan braise a sliced onion (with a suspicion of garlic, if desired), and when it is light brown, mix in a few tablespoons of tomato sauce. Dilute with a few spoonfuls of the soup in which the beans are cooking, then add the mixture to the beans, stirring carefully to keep the beans intact. Cook for a few minutes longer, and serve with a sprinkling of parsley.

Another method. Put the beans in the saucepan with a large tablespoonful of butter or soft, preferably chicken fat. Add pepper, mace and herbs, and braise slowly, taking care not to break the beans. Serve with grated nutmeg or a sprinkling of parsley.

And what to drink with it? It’s a colourful dish, so aesthetics demand a wine of colour – thus a red table wine, one that is not sweet.

10 April 1942