Delivered in a margarine tub, the Scots beans that could revolutionise dinners

They arrived in a small margarine tub; just a few little beans lovingly nurtured by a lifelong vegetarian in his garden at home.

Henry Taylor was retired and in the early stages of dementia. But that had not dulled his determination to cultivate a new variety of bean, one that would be ideal to grow in a Scottish climate, with a host of environmental benefits and the bonus of being protein-packed and tasty.

Having experimented and cultivated his crop for 30 years, he took his margarine tub of beans to the doors of Scotland’s crop research institute to see what they thought.

The result, it has transpired, has become something of a bean revolution.

For far from humble beans, Henry’s variety have been revealed as a Scottish ‘super’ bean, harbouring a range of special qualities which could revolutionise crop growing and bring a range of environmental benefits – from curbing the use of fertilisers on farmers’ fields, to cutting carbon emissions.

Not just that, they are small and with just the right qualities when cooked to make them perfectly palatable, potentially helping to meet soaring demand for climate-friendly vegan food and an ideal Scottish homegrown alternative to one of the nation’s staples, baked beans.

Plans are now underway for the first cans of Henry’s Scottish Beans to be cooked, canned and sold as the nation’s first homegrown baked beans.

Although UK consumers get through more than two million cans of baked beans every day, a lack of suitable bean varieties adapted to the UK climate, means not a single bean they eat is grown here.

Instead, the baked beans that land on the nation’s plates are imported, mostly from Canada.

Cultivating the right bean would not only open the floodgates to a host of bean-related food products, but it would also help cut food miles, curb emissions and help farmers introduce a nitrogen-fixing legume in their crop rotations, benefitting the soil and curbing fertiliser use.

Such a bean feast was not quite what Dr Pete Iannetta, a plant biologist and ecologist based at The James Hutton Institute in Dundee expected when he received a call asking him to meet a gentleman in reception who was carrying a margarine tub filled with beans.

“He said he wanted to talk to the ‘bean man’,” he recalls. “Henry said he had developed this bean that ripened in the same timeframe as a pea, which was unusual for a faba bean.

“I thought that was a nice thought, however some people have been trying to do that for quite a while.

“So I told him, ‘leave them with me’.”

Aware that Henry had once worked as a Field Trials Officer for a forerunner of the institute, Pete took the tub and planted the beans. Nature took its course and soon – far sooner than might be expected from a typical crop of faba or broad beans – Henry’s beanstalk sprouted.

And Pete soon realised that the beans, gifted to the James Hutton Institute by Henry in 2017 and which he dubbed simply ‘Scottish Beans’, are, if not exactly magic beans, certainly far from the average.

“Henry wanted the bean to be an early ripening beans, because normally it’s very difficult to get a faba bean out of the ground in time in Scotland,” he explains. “They are relatively big plants that grow quite tall, but they generally don’t ripen until early September.

“That means some farmers can’t harvest them. They aren’t wasted, they still provide a good manure, but they are a challenge,” he adds.

Henry’s dwarf faba beans are smaller and have been cultivated to be early ripening, meaning one crop can be harvested allowing growers to use the nitrogen-rich residue in the soil left behind to quickly sow a second crop.

While large-scale commercial corps of common haricot beans used for canned baked beans need around 50kg of nitrogen per hectare, Henry’s Scottish Bean doesn’t need any.

Pete also found it grew well alongside barley, enabling the cereal to thrive without the need for synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

And because the beans perform well when they are ‘direct drilled’, the soil does not need to be ploughed, which helps to avoid the emissions of greenhouse gases that creates.

The beans’ potential as a food crop could solve a range of other problems at a time when demand is growing from vegetarians and vegans for alternatives to heavily processed, low-nutrient fake meat style products.

Currently most faba beans grown in Scotland for human consumption end up being exported to North Africa, with some imported back in the form of falafel and other foods. Other crops are used for animal feed.

However, Henry’s Scottish Beans are particularly easy to cook with a thin and palatable skin – raising hopes they can reignite the use of homegrown beans which were once a staple ingredient in the nation’s kitchens.

Highly nutritious with high levels of protein, slow energy release starches, high fibre and essential minerals, the beans can be ground to make flour for bread, added to soups, casseroles and stews, and even turned into a hot drink.

“Whatever you do with wheat, you can do with beans,” explains Pete.

“You can even roast the flour until it’s toasted, mix it with hot milk and sugar and it tastes like liquified digestive biscuits. It is 25% protein and with high essential minerals – have it for breakfast and it will keep you going all day.

“I have come across some great books from the 1700s with recipes which use peas and beans. They were often used for brewing and distilling because the crops were grown together with barley – it was known then that they worked naturally together and complimented each other.”

The Scottish Bean is already gaining interest from bean growers globally as well as in the UK, while a quantity of the two and half tonnes of Henry’s beans that have been harvested will go to an organic grower who will work with Glasgow-based social enterprise Locavore to grow the beans for the retail market.

The first cans of baked Scottish beans are expected to hit shelves next year. Although likely to be more expensive than typical beans, the potential is said to be huge: every hectare of farmland has potential to produce 75,000 tonnes of beans, while just one tonne of beans can produce 10,000 cans.

The Scottish Bean has also led researchers at The James Hutton Institute to dig into its archives, where it has uncovered three long lost varieties of beans, Glen Lyon, Glen Carse and Glamis. Work is now being carried out to see how they may be cultivated into new Scottish crops.

Henry, who retired in the 1980s, was in his nineties when he died last year but had been kept up to date with a range of scientific tests on his beans.

Pete adds: “They were different times in the Eighties, and when Henry left the Institute he wanted to continue what he started.

“He took some beans home with him and was growing them in his back garden, just enjoying what he did.

“His wife told me the beans were so precious that the family was rarely allowed to eat them.

“Henry’s stock of beans is a godsend,” he continues.

“His bean is being called ‘the Scottish Bean’ but I wonder if it really should be called ‘Legacy’ in recognition of everything Henry did.”

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