Beans supreme

When well acquainted with a slab of bacon and other piggy bits, baked beans become the perfect soothing antidote to dark winter months, says Fergus Henderson.

Baked beans truly deserve more love than just the occasional breakfast and Sunday night supper. Beans and bacon, our baked beans, were a regular on the menu at our short-lived St John Hotel here in London, but they were sometimes dismissed by folk who didn't understand them to be the perfect example of food that both soothes and steadies. In the deep dark of an Antipodean August, too, it's a dish keenly suited to lunching, not least because the winter appetite is keen and digestion has the afternoon to take place.

It's also a dish that enjoys a gathering, so be led by the size of your largest pot: think big. A hefty crock is better still. Legumes and pottery are fine friends, the cooking of beans in earthenware adding comfort to this dish, the business of bringing the crock to the table a very good bit of theatre. Ideally, one would have a brick wood-burning bread oven to pop your crock in, but we can manage without in a pinch.

Bean-wise, I use haricots, but you could use the cannellini Australia seems to love, for a sort-of genius loci. Soak your beans well, and be careful with the salt. No matter what science keeps telling us, the most useful tip I have received from a fellow chef, the very wise Alastair Little, is to make sure dried beans are totally cooked and giving - submissive, even - before letting them meet salt, lest the bean or pulse pucker up and cease to cook. I don't want to sound pernickety, but it's sad how many armour-plated, thoroughly unforgiving beans you meet in life.

As with just about any bean dish, the really important thing is the bacon. You want a whole piece of streaky so you have the skin to line your pot, and you can cut it to your preferred dimensions. You also need rather a lot of it - about a kilo of good, green, streaky bacon to every kilo of beans. Thin rashers are not up to the task.

I fry the skin fat-side down in olive oil or a good dollop of duck fat. I soften onions and leeks in the fat and add a tin of plum tomatoes, and let the vegetables get to know each other. Then I add the cooked beans and assemble it all in our big crock, the bacon skin on the bottom with a couple of heads of garlic, and layer it with the beans and bacon, topping up with stock (preferably a trotter stock at that). I cook it in a medium to hot oven for two hours, finishing it with the lid off for the last half-hour to get a good crust going.

A cheeky addition is a pig's trotter (possibly the one you've just made the stock with). This can only ever be a good thing, bringing to the pot a lip-sticking unity. And unity is the thing here. You know your beans and bacon are ready when the ingredients have become good friends - everything is in harmony.

Now to forage for an appropriate salad to aid the tummy. I think butterhead or bibb lettuces are rather under-appreciated leaves in the brave new world where rocket and its micro-green pals rule the roost. Pop your lettuce in a bowl with angel wings of cucumber and barely disciplined lovage leaves. Make a kind of salad cream of the lightest nature - a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a little cream.

And now, the finishing touch: much red wine.

I prefaced the beans and bacon recipe in Nose to Tail Eating with a quote from GK Chesterton: "Landlord, bring us beans and bacon and a bottle of your finest Burgundy". Or at least I thought I was quoting Chesterton. Now when I look for confirmation on Google the only thing that comes up is Fergus Henderson banging on about bacon and beans. Damn.

But this short sentence nonetheless expresses the essence of hospitality. The only flaw with this is it would be a very brave (or very rich) soul in this day and age who would call for the house's finest Burgundy without first eyeing the price-list. Still, even "beans and bacon and a bottle of your finest Yarra Valley pinot" has a certain ring to it.


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