A European bean feast at Glemham House

Lady Cranbrook has been growing vegetables in her walled garden in East Suffolk for more than 40 years. She and her husband moved to Glemham House in 1970, three years after their marriage.

By the time they had three young children, it made sense to learn about growing vegetables and fruit and make the most of the kitchen garden. Established when the house was built in 1823, it had fantastic, deeply manured soil, as well as three large greenhouses, their Georgian hardware largely in working order and a 30ft tool shed with all the kit still hanging on the walls.

Caroline Cranbrook reckons in its heyday, the nearly two-acre walled garden fed up to 40 people, including all the staff who lived there. Soon after she took it over, it was back to that level of productivity and has stayed there ever since. With one gardener to help, she chose what and how to grow all that they consumed.
 
What varieties do they grow at Glemham House?
 
It is an incredible spread. There are the usual things – potatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbages and kales, beetroot, salad, herbs and cut flowers – but there are also unusual artichokes and plump aubergines, such as ‘Money maker’, which is good outdoors, as well as beautiful striped purple and white ‘Listada di Gandia’ which is delicious, but needs to be grown under glass. There are 13 varieties of sweet peppers, four forms of chilli and a vast pumpkin patch with one squash standing out, ‘Lunga di Napoli’, the size of a mini crocodile, glossy and dark green.
 
There are vast cabbages, including ‘Filderkraut’, one of the largest, pointy-tipped varieties grown all over northern Europe for sauerkraut, and a grove of tomatoes with vines still covered in vast, handsome and unusual varieties such as ‘Black Krim’.
 
But what stands out most of all in the middle of autumn are the rows and rows of beans. Drying beans are one of Caroline’s main passions. She started growing them 15 years ago with some seeds she found in Budapest. They were being sold from heaps, piled up in baskets on a market stall and were definitely climbing beans of, as she says, “the Jack-and-the-beanstalk variety”. She bought a bagful home.
 
These Hungarian dried beans were not just purple with a splotch; there were pale mauve, dark brown and ivory all mixed in, some with black markings, some with brown: apparently the ivory and brown grow the tenderest and tastiest beans, so she’s careful to select these for resowing.
 
Soon after she sowed them the following May, she knew they outclassed the standard runner. They grew fast and strong, and were quickly covered in short, stumpy beans, about half the length of a runner. To eat, these are sweet and never stringy – a delicious green bean – but there’s more to them. In Hungary, they also dry the beans indoors, harvested as one of the last crops of autumn to eat through the winter.
 
It’s that double cropping that so many of us miss out on, shoving our plants on the compost heap when the pods turn old and stringy.
 
At Glemham, that’s not what happens. Caroline walks the rows of plants most mornings on her way to feed her chickens and as soon as the leaves start to turn yellow on the vines and drop, she’ll pick the beans, pod by pod, as each one ripens. You can tell when they’re ready: the pods turn brown and slightly crisp, the beans rattling inside their case. This is true of all drying bean varieties, which must not be harvested too soon. If picked when the pod is still soft, they go mouldy. However, neither must you leave them on the plant too long or they will fail to dry out in the autumn dews and rain. Timing is everything.
 
Dwarf varieties are uprooted in bunches as soon as the leaves start yellowing, hung up in an open shed until completely dry and their pods then stripped off.
 
All the pods then come into the house and are put into baskets, according to variety, on the dining room table where they’re left to dry further for a few more weeks. Then they are shelled individually and go into jars.
 
Caroline leaves the jar lids off, for a last drying, finally screwing them down, so that they are ready for eating until next year’s crop begins.
 
Caroline's bean collecting obsession
 
With this as her introduction, bean collecting and growing became an obsession and Caroline now has ‘Gigantes’ from the southern Mediterranean, pea beans from West Dean (beautiful cream and deep red bicolour beans), black and white from Slovenia, dark red ones from Mexico, borlotti beans of three types, all from Italy, as well haricots, navy beans, flageolet beans, black, shiny Cherokee “Trail of Tears” beans (so called because the Cherokee tribe took the beans with them when they were thrown off their land), and some brown and white ones, which are particularly creamy, soft and delicious, from Croatia.
 
A few of the beans come from less well known seed catalogues, but Caroline and her family and friends buy seed whenever they see them on their travels. The ivory and beige Croatian bean came from her son, Argus, who saw them growing there.
 
Then there are the squash seeds which came from a slice bought in the veg markets in Rhodes and Palermo in Sicily, and the ‘Gigantes’ bought in Piazza delle Erbe, the enormous food market in and around Padua’s medieval town hall.
 
That’s how she recommends we find our seed, not from run-of-the-mill seed catalogues, which all stock much the same, but from more personal sources which we’ll then remember every time we eat. Countries such as Hungary still have varieties available that have been selected over hundreds or even thousands of years and which vary from one part of the country to another, chosen for being healthy and strong in that locality, some of which also grow very well for us.
 
The EU is now imposing strict seed rules in the eastern European member countries so it is much more difficult to find local seeds, and indeed local traditional markets, so the opportunity for this sort of seed sourcing is dwindling. Yet with that variation lies richness, so we should make the most of it when on holiday while we still can.
 
We should grow different and unusual varieties for ourselves and if we like them, keep the seed.
 
Glenham House Bean Wisdom
 
 - Over the winter, dig in plenty of manure to your ground to prepare it for spring sowing. All beans like rich, well-drained soil.
 - Direct sow in May.
 - Provide the beans with a climbing frame. The netting on your brassicas cage would be fine. That’s how Lady Cranbrook fits so many in her garden, but she also grows them up pea and bean netting, stretched between canes.
 - Every two to three years, try to move the plants to a fresh spot in the garden.
 
 
Try Sarah's Borlotti bean ratatouille recipe...
 
 
This article first featured in The Telegraph on 18th October 2013.