26 November 2011

Lima bean mysteries

I first became aware of Mariana's Restaurant from a gorgeous article in Visi Magazine many years ago, back when it was still Afrikaans only. The story pretty much pushed all my aesthetic and culinary buttons. If memory serves, it was all chiaroscuro photography on matte paper, the setting rustic but refined, and the food home-grown, with the culinary emphasis on making the ingredients shine. I knew I had to go.

Marianas is in the small Overberg town of Stanford, and later I lived nearby for almost 5 years. But I'm not very good at planning ahead, so despite popping in hopefully at least half a dozen times, their continuously fully booked status always stopped me at the doorway.

Two weeks ago, I finally got to eat there, not through any evolution of my organisational skills, but as an early birthday treat. The meal was everything I'd expected it to be, and that's saying a lot. But that's not the point of this post.

While running through the menu, Peter, Mariana's husband, made a point of emphasising the specialness of the beans she uses for several of their dishes. He described how wonderful their flavour was, and that they are a heritage West Coast crop. I thought he called them heuningbone (Afrikaans for 'honey beans').

It was my honorary birthday, and since the excellent local wine we were drinking is probably about to go out of production, I may have already inhaled a couple of glasses by the time starters arrived. This might have slightly lessened my natural charm and reserve. When the starters arrived I therefore immediately observed that the beans appeared to be Lima beans. I might have casually dropped the scientific name, Phaseolus lunatus. Peter bore my know-it-all-ness with good grace. After our meal Mariana emerged from her kitchen to chat and I asked about the beans. She told of how the farmers are no longer very keen on growing them, with their low productivity, only two beans per pod. Unfortunately even that low productivity seems to depend on the windy, sandy heat of the West Coast, and she said they'd been unsuccessful with them in shale loams of their vegetable garden. Mariana was kind enough to give me this precious packet to try growing them myself.

Last weekend I started digging. Leipoldt's Food and Wine, a compendium of his culinary writing, quickly suggested that I'd misheard heuningbone, and pointed me at a whole chapter on goeweneursboonjies (governer's beans) also called hereboontjies (gentlemen's beans or God's beans - the former translation more likely, but I perefer the latter)in his Culinary Treasures (written under the pseudonym K A R Bonade). The footnotes of my 2003 edition confirm that they refer to Lima beans, but Leipoldt notes that they are speckled "red, black-brown, white and yellow" and alludes to the white variety as "pale-yellow, dirty-white descendents", "inferior-tasting South American types that are far less pleasing". As background, I also know, via Roger Phillps and Martyn Rix's excellent book Vegetables (Pan Books 1993), that early coloured and speckled Lima beans are a historic form that require soaking and boiling to remove poisonous cyanogenic glycosides. Their authority is only slightly dimmed by their horrendous mis-spelling  as 'cyanogenetic glucosides'. Now Mariana and Peter seemed to know that herebone should be speckled, because they mentioned that they thought that they had become white through inbreeding. It seems more likely however, that they are dealing with a modern variety of Lima bean. I must confess that while their preparation, dressing and presentation was outstanding, the actual bean itself tasted to me just like the kind freely available as dried 'sugar'or 'butter beans' in South African supermarkets. Fortunately I was not actually obnoxious enough to say this to that charming couple. And there's also that one unusual trait of the beans they gave me - the black beauty spots at the hilum. No white Lima bean in any seed catalogue I've seen has those. So they might not be the real hereboontjies, but they do seem to be a special heritage variety.

More homework is clearly required. I will have to track down the growers of these heritage beans and get their story.

UPDATE 31 August 2012: A friend recently brought this article by Danie Olivier over at selfsustainable.co.za to my attention. It is the only comprehensive description of hereboonjies that I know of, and essential reading if you are interested in local heirloom varieties.


  1. Herebone. haven't eaten them in years. Vermaaklikheid: a lady poet made them for us with a chopped herb and garlic vinaigrette. sauce ran down chins, fingers were licked. delicious. they were bigger than butterbeans and flatter. but regarding the flavour I agree.

  2. Now I want beans. The last time we ate at Mariana's ice dissolved as we looked at it...Hope to find the herebone there next time.

  3. Aurora is a good place to start your search...

  4. Thanks Kobus, I'll pick your brains for specifics when I get a gap.