Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Variety Spotlight - Fagiolo del Purgatorio or Purgatory Beans

It's time that this little bean got the spotlight. After 10 years off and on in my gardens I think it has proven itself as one of my favorites.

Dry Purgatory Beans
If you like bean salads then this bean is for you. It is quick cooking, thin skinned but firm, and delicately flavored. I've seen it compared to a cannellini bean but to my taste cannellinis have an unpleasant waxy texture that Purgatory beans thankfully lack. They are also about half the size of cannellinis. They look absolutely tiny compared to another one of my favorite white beans - Greek Gigantes (Gigande). My favorite way to consume Purgatory beans is in salads but they are also good in soups or as a stewed bean.

Soaked Purgatory Beans
The name comes from the long tradition of consuming them at the Pranzo del Purgatorio (Purgatory Lunch) on Ash Wednesday in the town of Gradoli in Italy. The tradition goes back at least 300 years, some say time immemorial, but since these are Phaseolus vulgaris, a New World bean, they could not have been cultivating them in Italy before the end of the 15th century. I don't have much doubt though that this is an old variety of bean, not tinkered with too much after being transported to Italy. William Woys Weaver discusses native American bean traits in his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. He says there's two traits that have been selectively bred out of modern beans. Pre-Columbian bush beans send out a single runner up to 3 feet long while the rest of the plant remains compact. And stringless beans are a 19th century innovation in bean breeding. Native Americans didn't consume beans in the green snap phase so they didn't care about strings in the pods.  Purgatory beans both send out a single runner and they have strings. I'll take those as indications that these beans have been relatively untinkered with for a while.

I really do like this bean, I must really truly like it in light of the difficulties that I've had growing them the past few years and yet I soldier on. I'm not sure if it's my fault of if they are susceptible to spider mites, but that seems to be one of the usual problems they encounter. In 2012 I kept the beans under a cover of Agribon to protect them from birds, unfortunately that may have created ideal conditions for spider mites to take hold. The plants became completely infested and met an early demise, but not before I got a little over a pound of dried beans. That was encouragement to try again. In 2013 I learned the limits of an early start for these beans, many seedlings died a cold soggy death, March is definitely too early. But I kept sowing more successions and eventually got a decent bunch of plants going. And then the spider mites hit, between the mites and my ministrations the plants died an early death again. But I still got almost 2 pounds of beans. More encouragement... Last year I tested the limits for how late I could plant them and sowed them on July 18 - yes, the middle of summer, and pushed even harder with a second sowing on August 7. And I pretty much got away with it, the spider mites attacked again, but fortunately the plants once again set some good beans and the warm nearly rainless autumn worked in my favor for getting the beans to dry. Last year my efforts netted 1.7 pounds of dried beans.

This year I gave the beans a more fair chance at success. I waited until April 11 to sow the beans in paper pots, one and a half flats for a total of 54 pots. Instead of Agribon I used more permeable and breathable tulle to protect the young plants from the birds.

May 6
After a few weeks I removed the fabric and let the plants grow on. You can see that I also experimented with an interplanting of Speedy arugula, an experiment that was pretty successful, I got a couple rounds of arugula harvests before the bean foliage shaded it out.

May 23
The plants were very happy and healthy in spite of growing through one of the coolest and foggiest Mays on record. The weather warmed up in June and the plants took off. Not all the beans in the photo below are Purgatory beans, there's bush Slenderette and Royal Burgundy snap beans in the foreground.

June 15
After one of the coolest and foggiest Mays on record we segued into one of the warmest (but not too hot) and sunniest summers in the past few years. And for some reason the spider mites have not been as bad as usual. The stakes you see below were a makeshift effort to keep the plants from flopping over into the very narrow space between the bed and the deer fence.

July 7
The plants set a lot of beans.

July 7
By early August the beans had matured and most of the plants had dropped their leaves and dried out. That barrier in front of the beans was to keep the leaves of the Romanesco Zucchini from flopping into the space for the beans.

August 9
These are a couple of the best specimens from the patch.

The beans in the pods weighed in at 4.25 pounds. I rather enjoy the process of popping the beans out of their pods individually and I do it after dinner while watching a video with Dave. The process helps to keep me from nodding off in the middle of the program...

Today was the final weigh-in for the dry shelled beans - just a smidge over 3 pounds. Woo hoo, plenty of bean salads for the coming year!

A 1.5 Liter Jar of Purgatory Beans
My original seed stock came from an Italian member of the Seed Savers Exchange back in 2005. His beans were from Onano, Viterbo, which is not far from the town of Gradoli where the Pranzo del Purgatorio is held. He no longer offers seeds through SSE but I did find one seed company that offers Purgatory Beans - Uprising Seeds. That's one option if you are interested in growing these beans. Another would be to buy a package of cooking beans and use a few beans as seeds - a good way to see if you like the beans before devoting garden space to them. And a third option would be me - I might be persuaded to part with a few of my beans, especially if you have something interesting to exchange.

Slow Food deems these beans to be worth saving from extinction, they have included them in their Ark of Taste (Italian only, I wish I could read it...), and I agree, I'll keep growing them.


  1. Very interesting bean, sounds like they would do well in dry desert conditions. Looks like your plants got fairly large, and you got a good amount of poundage for a nice little stand of bushes.

  2. This is a very interesting article, Michelle. I appreciated the history you described. And I would say that 3 lbs of small beans from 54 plants is a superb result.

  3. That plant has a LOT of beans on it, what a fantastic harvest.

    By the way, I keep forgetting to mention that I love seeing your instagram feed on the sidebar. I don't follow anything on instagram, so just nice to see your beautiful photos as I'm reading the post.

  4. An interesting bean! I have never seen this variety before.

  5. They sound like an extremely interesting bean, but I wonder how well they would do in my hot and extremely humid Midwestern summers...

  6. That sounds like a nice bean, both to eat and to grow. I'd never fit 54 plants in my garden though! I think I would go for a climbing variety, in order to get a bigger yield from the space. I enjoy reading about the history of plants. All to often we just take them for granted, and don't think about where they came from.

  7. It was nice that you got a year of respite from the mites. We have had real trouble with them this year on our raspberries.

  8. I love reading the history of vegetables and their varieties. Thanks for sharing this one! That is a great haul from a relatively small number of plants. I have a couple of Weaver's books and keep them handy for reference. The two 'greasy' pole beans I'm growing this year are Appalachian varieties that haven't had the strings bred out. They have a great flavor, and it's not that tough to string the beans before cooking, or pick them young before the strings develop.

  9. Interesting bean, thanks for the history write up, looks like this bean will fit into our desert environment, I'll be interested in growing it especially it matures in August, just enough time for me to replace the space with fall veggies.

  10. Like Dave I really enjoy learning about a veg's history and that's so interesting that pre-tinkered with "bush" beans would produce a single runner. I normally use navy beans for salads - how would you say the purgatory beans compare?

    1. Well, it's been years since I cooked up a pot of Navy beans and I'm obviously quite biased towards my little white beans so you'll have to take my opinion with a big grain of salt. So I think that anything that Navy beans are suited for the Purgatory beans will do just as well if not better...

  11. Michelle. Thanks so much for a great post. You and Dave over at Our Happy Acres write such wonderful posts on the interesting varieties that you are growing and enjoying.They always teach me so much and get me excited about growing news things. Two questions for you.#1 After you shell the beans, do you ever freeze them to get rid of bean weevils or is that not a concern for you? #2 How long do you cook these beans? Thanks!

    1. Lexa, thanks so much, it is fun to share because I am always excited to grow interesting things and hope to get other gardeners interested too. Fortunately I have not had problems with bean weevils so I don't freeze my beans. These little beans cook quickly. Fresh crop beans will be done in maybe 15 minutes with a presoak. I've never actually timed them, but they always surprise me with how quickly they are done. I just cooked up the last of my 2013 beans and they took closer to 30 minutes or so after a presoak. I've read that these beans don't even need a presoak, but I always do a 1 minute boil and 1 hour soak before cooking any beans. Just habit I suppose.


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