'Have you got your runner beans in yet?' asked the taxi driver as we started the journey from Ipswich to Woodbridge in April. I felt like I had aged 20 years in the space of one sentence. Did I really look like the sort of person who grew runner beans, who knotted garden twine around canes to form a wigwam for them to climb up, who manured and watered and went hunting slugs with a torch? I felt like I should whip out a pipe and some backy or pop on some nice warm slippers.
It was a harmless enough start to a conversation and probably quite typical for the time of year and our location in deepest Suffolk. Yet it sent a shot of panic through the system. Not least because I had just sent away for a packet of Red Emperor bean seeds, several bags of manure and commissioned some rather beautiful iron obelisks to grow them up.
Four months on and I have a 6ft wigwam of lush leaves, scarlet flowers and long green beans. I am as proud as punch. I did as the driver bid and dug generous spades of manure into the hole, planted the seeds late and kept them watered.
I went out every morning and pulled the slugs from the leaves and dropped them into a salt pot until they fizzed and turned green. Every evening or so I go out and pick off a handful of green beans. We have them boiled, steamed, tossed in a salad with mushrooms or rolled in butter and pecorino cheese.
Runner beans were the only fresh vegetable I knew as a child. Peas came frozen or freeze-dried, carrots were tinned, and mashed potatoes came as a powder to which you added water and a knob of marg. After courgettes and pumpkins, beans are the first vegetables I have grown for myself.
There is something elusive about the flavour of a runner bean. You know how it should taste, and how they used to taste when you were a kid, but all too often they now fail to deliver. These home-grown beans, in the pot only minutes after I have picked them, seem to capture something of that quality. Perhaps, as with sweetcorn and asparagus, time is of the essence.
This is probably a strange thing for a cookery writer to say, but I am unconvinced there is a more fitting end for a runner bean than being boiled and buttered and beside a few slices of pink lamb and roast potato. I am not certain they even need the butter. Of course, if they are coming at you every morning you might start to look at other ways of using them, which is why many of mine have ended up being given a quick steaming and tossed into salads, or once, disastrously, into a soup.
These beans love bacon and its fat. But then, don't most beans. I folded some lightly cooked runners into the hot fat from fried cubes of fat bacon, shook over a little white-wine vinegar and masses of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Great salad.
A silly thing, but I do love the smell of freshly cut runner beans. It's just nostalgia, of course. If I mixed it in the right ratio with the smell of freshly cut grass and sliced cucumber, I could probably bottle it and sell it as the essence of English summer. Something to sniff on a winter's day, when I sit by the fire with my pipe and slippers.
Wild mushroom and bean salad
A warm salad for a late summer lunch.
I might suggest some cheese to follow, perhaps a lovely, weeping Brie. Serves 2 as a light lunch.
130g chanterelle or other wild mushrooms
220g runner beans
140g pancetta or fat bacon
2 tbsps white-wine vinegar
2 level tsps grain mustard
a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
Check the mushrooms over for straw, twigs and bits of grit. Rinse them if you must, but a wipe with a sheet of kitchen roll would be better. Washing can make them 'steam' instead of fry.
Slice the beans, but not too thinly, removing any strings, then boil them in deep, lightly salted water till tender. They will take 4-8 minutes, depending on their age and how thickly you sliced them. Drain them when they are done.
Cut the pancetta or bacon into small cubes and fry in a shallow pan till the fat is golden. Tip in the mushrooms and let them cook for 3 or 4 minutes, till tender. Add the vinegar and let it bubble for a few seconds. Season with salt, pepper, the mustard and the parsley. Tip the beans into the mushrooms and fold them gently in.
Runner beans with lemon and garlic crumbs
A side dish for grilled plaice or baked hake. Serves 4-6 as an accompaniment.
450g runner beans
1 small, white loaf
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tbsps chopped sage leaves
1 small handful of chopped parsley
grated zest of a lemon
Trim the beans, pulling away any strings and slice them into short, thick pieces. I do this at a diagonal, but it doesn't matter. Drop them into boiling, salted water and boil till they are tender (about 7 or 8 minutes).
Remove the crusts from the bread and discard (I suppose we really should put them out for the birds). Blitz the remaining bread to crumbs in a food processor, then melt the butter in a shallow pan over a moderate heat and add the garlic, sage, parsley and lemon, stirring them round in the butter for a minute or so without letting them colour.
Add the crumbs to the seasoned butter and continue cooking until the crumbs have soaked up the butter and are starting to turn pale gold. You may find you need a bit more butter.
Drain the beans and put them into a warm serving dish, then scatter over the garlic and herb crumbs.
Beans with bacon and pecorino
A good side dish with cold meat, such as cold ham or roast pork, or fish such as salmon or trout. Serves 4 as a side dish.
450g runner beans
8 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
50g (or slightly less) butter
2 tbsps of coarsely chopped mint
String the beans and cut them thinly on the diagonal. Pile them into a steamer basket and cook them over boiling water, covered tightly with a lid until the beans are deep green and tender. I tend not to undercook them for this recipe, so they become silky and melting.
Meanwhile, grate the pecorino (I find this easiest using the grater attachment of a food processor, though you can do it by hand). Cut the bacon into thin strips, about the width of your little finger.
Warm the butter in a shallow pan and when it starts to froth add the bacon and let it fry till the fat has coloured a pale, appetising gold. Lift the bacon out with a draining spoon on to kitchen paper, then add the drained beans, grated pecorino and the mint to the hot bacon fat and toss gently so that the cheese starts to melt.