On the Table—Tolosa Beans: The Basque Country’s Legendary Legume
Few beans are as celebrated as the legendary Basque tolosa bean, or tolosako babarruna (alubias de Tolosa in Spanish). So beloved is this dark legume that each November everything stops in Tolosa, a small town located in the Basque province of Gipúzkoa, for the “week of the bean” (babarrunaren astea).
During this annual festival, Tolosa is inundated with beans. Delicately simmered bean stews are served from huge vats on the streets, alongside cooking competitions, communal meals, street performances and concerts. Bean-based pintxos, the skewered Basque version of tapas (pintxo literally means “spiked”), can be found in every bar. Festivalgoers even bid on canvas sacks of prize-winning beans at the marketplace.
This beloved bean has become an emblematic product of Tolosa, distinguished by both the Spanish Denominación de Origen and Basque Kalitatea labels signifying the highest quality produce and ensuring geographical authenticity. Interestingly, the beans are actually native to Venezuela and were introduced to the Basque Country in the 18th century, along with the traditional method of cultivating the beans in symbiosis with corn—corn stalks serve as trellises for the beans and the beans fix nitrogen in the soil. The beans are grown on the small farms of roughly sixty official growers dotting the hills of Gipúzkoa along the Oria River. The beans are left to dry after hand harvesting at the end of September or October. These age-old practices demonstrate the importance to Basque farmers of maintaining ancestral cultivation methods that respect the natural environment.
Though they appear black at first glance, tolosa beans are actually the color of deep wine and have a characteristic single white spot. Soft and thin-skinned, the beans have a unique, buttery flavor and creamy texture that is best honored with the simplest of preparations—no spices and no tomatoes, just beans and a bit of olive oil cooked over a low simmer until tender. This no-frills approach showcases the Basque cuisine’s signature ability to create robust and complex flavors from a few simple ingredients.
To complete this iconic Tolosan meal, serve with a simple side dish of wilted cabbage or kale with a little garlic and oil. Morcilla (Spanish blood sausage) or chorizo can also be fried and added to the beans once fully cooked or served on the side along with spicy ibarrako piparrak (guindillas in Spanish), pickled peppers from the neighboring town of Ibarra.
Unfortunately for those of us who don’t live in the Basque Country, authentic tolosa beans are practically impossible to find outside of the Iberian Peninsula. Furthermore, the bean’s small production and high quality command a hefty price of $10 to $20 per pound. Prices are likely to be even higher considering growers have been faced with two consecutive years of challenging harvests. Last year, 70 percent of production was lost, and more losses are expected this year due to an unseasonably rainy autumn, with some farmers choosing not to seed at all.
Online retailer La Tienda carries a similar variety that will certainly do fine as a substitute, but you’ll have to travel to the Basque Country for the real deal—and what better time than the upcoming Tolosa Bean Festival?
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1 pound dried tolosa beans (if you can find them) or dried black beans*
6 cups water
2 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Bring cold water, beans, and olive oil to a boil in a pot. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer slowly for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Once the beans are soft, season with salt, remove from heat and allow stew to thicken slightly before serving.
- If working with your standard variety black bean, an onion and bay leaf can be added to build flavor.
- Unlike other legumes, tolosa beans should not be soaked before cooking.
- Avoid stirring the beans too much, as this will cause the delicate skins to break and fall off. If cooked properly, the beans will be smooth, skins intact, in a velvety purple soup.
- Traditionally, earthenware pots are used. For a modern and completely hands-off cooking method, try simmering this stew in a slow cooker. Cooking time will be longer, about 6 to 8 hours on low. More information on cooking beans in a slow cooker can be found here.