May and June always meant two things for me when we were living on the Welsh Borders: our spring holiday escaping to the mountains in Southern Spain for the May half term; and the first broad beans in my vegetable garden, ready to pick in June when we returned. They are inextricably linked in my mind by one recipe – Habas con Jamon.
The Jamon would be a huge leg of Jamon Serrano, a speciality of the Alpujarras Mountains in Southern Spain. The mountains are famous for their salted air-dried hams, with the best coming from the highest village of Trevelez. While not cheap (even back in those days), the flavour was excellent. Invariably, we would be tempted and buy a whole leg. Slater would board the return plane with a rucksack on his back containing an entire ham with the pigs trotter gently nudging the back of his head!
As for the beans, they were my responsibility. My first few attempts at growing broad beans were pretty hit and miss – the mice tended to polish off the November-sown beans and the Welsh winters did for the rest. But as soon as I got a small greenhouse, I opted for starting them off in cardboard toilet rolls, which I then planted out. With this ruse, I finally began to get some serious crops. The remaining hurdles were remembering to pinch out the tips before the black fly got going, and then making sure the boys (aged two, four, and six) didn’t polish them off before I could pick them. I would often find them standing waist high among the peas and beans while they devoured the contents of the pods.
As for the recipe, there wasn’t one. It was a dish that I first discovered in Gualchos (see my recipe for chard), and was often served up as a simple tapas dish in Ardales, the small town near El Chorro, which we discovered when I returned many years later with Slater and boys in tow.
Broad beans were a vegetable I detested as a child. Large, grey and overboiled, the floury soggy taste and the leathery skins seemed like a form of punishment, and I would gag when trying to eat them. The memory of the broad beans served at school lunches stayed with me and I was in my twenties before I had another go – this time, trying out some lightly steamed fresh beans straight from the market. They tasted nothing like the sad grey specimens I’d eaten before. I began to lose my phobia, and by my thirties, growing a good crop of broad beans in my Welsh vegetable garden was one of my passions.
I love broad beans because they are so seasonal – you won’t see broad beans at Christmas, unless they’re frozen. And during their short season (late April to mid-June), they have their own mini-seasons. There is nothing better than the very first pods, steamed entire, and served up with butter, salt and pepper. Then you come to the first podded beans – again, perfect steamed, and perhaps served with a platter of small spring vegetables (baby carrots, Jerseys, turnips, asparagus) and a large bowl of Hollandaise.
Mid-season, when the beans are slightly larger, I always cook Habas con Jamon, and at the end of their season, when the beans are much larger and the skins have become rather leathery, I steam them and – a real labour of love this – peel each bean, then make a puree with some cream, butter, salt and pepper. Perfect with a Sunday roast!
I serve this dish as a tapas, accompanied with spicy fried potatoes (a lazy Patatas Bravas), Manchego cheese, salted grilled almonds, some olives stuffed with garlic, and dry fino sherry – classic Spanish style.
For every person you need a couple of handfuls of beans (do not underestimate the huge ratio of pod to bean!). Then, ideally, you need a large chunk of proper Serrano ham. It’s invariably sold sliced in wafer-thin offerings which is no good at all. A good butcher should be able to cut you a large chunk, complete with skin and fat. I’m lucky here in Sorèze to have a great butchers, where they have legs of Serrano ham and Lacaune ham (the speciality from the Tarn).
Habas con Jamon – Serves two as a meal, four as tapas. Preparation time – 30 minutes
Two handfuls of unpodded beans per person
Approximately 400 gm of Jamon Serrano (unsliced)
Salt and ground black pepper
Sit in the garden with a glass of wine or sherry, a fellow ‘podder’ (I had the help of my niece, Hannah), and get podding.
Back in the kitchen, slice off the fat, complete with skin, and cut it into long strips. Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan to a low heat, then add the fat so it begins to melt and give the pan a good coating of the ham-flavoured fat. Depending on how much you have, you might have to supplement this with some olive oil.
The remaining piece of ham needs to be cut into small chunks. Add these to the pan, and as soon as they begin to change colour, add all the beans. Stir round from time to time for around five minutes, until the beans are cooked. The smaller ones will start shedding their skins but you need to make sure the larger ones are cooked through.
When cooked, tip out onto a couple of thicknesses of kitchen towel to absorb the fat, then serve in a bowl.