Some Tarbais Beans are harvested young to be sold as a fresh green beans; some are let fully ripen for harvesting as a dried bean.
The dried beans are large white beans that look a bit like shorter, flattened white kidney beans.
Tarbais Beans have a mild flavour and thin skin but they hold their shape during cooking, even when reheated.
Their texture is smooth and creamy rather than floury or starchy. Tarbais Beans are traditionally used in making cassoulets.
They are expensive: 2005 prices for dried Tarbais Beans were $14.00 US a pound.
To be sold in France as Tarbais Beans, they must be grown in the Adour valley, which is in the Gascony region in the far south-west of France on the Spanish border.
Tarbais Beans are good for bean salads, soups, and casseroles.
Tarbais Beans are named after Tarbes, a town in the Adour valley in the French Pyrénées, in the Hautes-Pyrénées department.
In 1709, a noble, François de Poudenx, from the Chalosse area adjoining Landes region, was the abbot of the Cistercian Abbey Sainte-Marie de Pontaut, Pontaut, Gascony. (Some sources say he was the Bishop of Tarbes, but this is unconfirmed outside tales about Tarbais Beans.)
He went to Spain in the early 1700s (he was in Tarbes in 1712), where he saw some foods from the New World being grown. He brought back corn and bean seeds, along with the knowledge of how to grow them, and encouraged their cultivation to help alleviate the famines that Tarbes suffered under from time to time. (The problem with this story is the corn part: in Chalosse, corn had already been grown since the 1630s.) The farmers would grow Tarbais Beans with corn, planting a bean seed along with a corn seed, so that the bean could climb up on the corn stalk.
By 1881, 45,000 acres of beans were being grown. The traditional method of growing the beans with the corn was no longer tenable when mechanical harvesting arrived in the 1960s. Mechanical harvesting made hand-harvested crops uncompetitive, so farmers stopped growing the beans commercially. Also, the pesticides used for the corn could kill the beans.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Tarbais Beans were grown only by home gardeners for their own use.
A cooperative was formed in 1988 by 12 growers, called the Pyrenean Co-operative of Tarbais Bean Growers (Coopérative Pyrénéenne des Producteur de Haricots Tarbais – CPPHT). As of 2006, it had 100 members. Tarbais Beans are now grown in fields on their own, trained on nylon nets. They are harvested by hand, which allows the individual pods to be harvested as they are ripen which is not all at the same time.
Tarbais Beans received a French “Label Rouge” in 1997, and in 2000, the cooperative received European PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status for their product.