“Coco de Paimpol”? Suddenly these big speckly pods were all over local French markets. I’d never seen beans like them before–soft yellow pods marbled with violet arabesques–and the name was crazy: coconuts from a remote village in the northwest of France??? Of course, I bought them immediately.
Thank goodness for impulses.
Shelled, they are big, fat, beautiful, white beans. Cooked, they are bigger and fatter, exquisitely tender, even melting, and nutty in taste. They’re only sold in the pod or frozen, never dried. They don’t disintegrate, no matter low long you cook them, but their skin is so thin that they pop when your teeth just graze them. Hard to beat THAT for taste sensation. And, indeed, like the best French wines and cheeses, these beans have earned the covetted AOC rating.
What a story: The time: the 1920s. The place: South America. The drama: a young, homesick Breton sailor finds these gorgeous new-world beans in a port of call and brings back a handful to plant in his native soil, at La Pointe de l’Arcouest in the Trégor-Goëlo region of Brittany. Like young Jack of the Beanstalk’s, they practically exploded out of the ground. That particular bean and that particular microclimate turned out to be a perfect match–and they quickly spread to all the local gardens in town. Fateful magic? I think so. In the dark days of heavy World World II bombing and privation, instead of starving…it was cocos for breakfast, cocos for lunch, and cocos for dinner for the good people of Trégor-Goëlo.
But cocos came into their own in postwar France when their sheer abundance made them into a cash crop. And they hit their gourmandise stride in 1998 when they achieved that Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) certification–a rarity among beans. What makes them AOC? They’re only planted in Trégor-Goëlo, and only at a certain density and only with certain fertilizer. Perhaps above all, they’re only harvested BY HAND because of the fragility of the pods, then briefly stored and rushed to market strictly by the rules.
And here is where France has so much fun with its love of fine food. Some 3000 plumeurs flock into Trégor-Goëlo in July for a lot of harvesting and a lot of partying during the summer. There are competitions in picking, competitions in shelling and recipes, and a hotly contested election for Best Plumeur of the Year.
In the spirit of this coco phenomenon, I offer you one of the recipes from Prince de Bretagne itself: Soupe potiron coco de Paimpol for 4 people:
- 1 cup cocos, cooked in unsalted water with a bay leaf and onion pierced with a clove for 35 minutes…or fully cooked second-best white beans of your choice
- 1 pound of pumpkin or other orange squash, peeled and cubed and steamed for about 20 minutes–then pureed and mixed with 1 cup heavy cream (or yoghurt if you’re watching calories). Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
At this point you only have to assemble the soup. Ladle the pumpkin soup equally into 4 bowls. Drain the heated cocos or beans and spoon into the center of each bowl. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and pepper, and serve piping hot. And what’s that next to my bowl? Oh that Woodrow Wilson Market in Paris–fresh, fat chanterelle mushrooms quickly sauteed in butter. Delicious!
I know it’s cruel to tease those of you not able to get these cutie cocos, but the recipe is nice for all that, with those second-best beans of your choice.
One last issue: What ABOUT that name–why “coconuts”? The controversy rages, of course, as it always does in France when food is concerned. But why not the easy vernacular explanation–”coco” being one’s “little sweetie pie”? Plump and melting and a little nutty…sounds like a little darling from Paimpol to me.