Some of you may be growing this treasure of a bean this year, as it appeared in the 2010 Heritage Seed Library catalogue - along with a little quote from me because I'm one of the Seed Guardians who looks after this variety. The advantage of being a Seed Guardian meant I got to try it two years before it appeared in the catalogue, and I've already written a detailed review. There hasn't been much point in me promoting it until now because it wasn't available until this year, and I couldn't offer it in any personal seed swaps because the stock I have belongs to the Heritage Seed Library and all the seed I produced went back to them.
If you chose this variety then you are in for a treat. I rarely, if ever, proclaim anything to be the "best ever" or single any one thing out as my ultimate favourite, because there are so many varieties that have merits in different areas, and diversity is in itself a blessing. But this is the exception - Major Cook's Bean is the best bean I've ever grown, and I fell completely in love with it. It is the bean that has everything.
Genuine multipurpose beans are a rarity. In most cases, there is a trade off between pod quality and bean quality, and you have to decide which you prefer when you choose a variety. Major Cook's Bean is an exception. It has the most exquisitely fat succulent pods with a gourmet flavour and absolutely no trace of fibre whatsoever, so the pods stay sweet and edible even when they're fairly mature. At the same time (even on the same plant) you can harvest mature beans which also have a gourmet flavour and a silky texture and which don't break up when you cook them.
The pods are quite curious looking as they have a strong curved shape and are mottled with purple-maroon. To start with the pods are flat and the mottling is quite blue. As they mature they become spectacularly knobbly, and the colour changes to a rich burgundy maroon. What is unusual is that the pods are still delicious after they've gone knobbly. The knobbles are caused by the complete absence of fibre inside, so the pods shrink around the shapes of the beans. The pods are also incredibly thick-walled and juicy, which adds to the knobbly effect even more. They have a strong flavour, but it's sweet and rich and delicious, and the texture is smooth and succulent - and as if that wasn't enough, they are absolutely stringless! Instead of going fibrous when left to mature completely, the inside of the pod develops a soft white layer of fluff, like you get in broad beans, and the outer colour turns almost solid dark maroon.
Like all red/blue/purple streaked pods, the colour is not retained on cooking because the pigment (anthocyanin) is water-soluble. It does turn the cooking water a lovely deep blue-green!
If you eat the whole beans rather than the pods, you are in for another treat. They will stay intact in a casserole and the texture is buttery and silky, and the flavour rich and sweet.
Fresh shelled beans. With the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn't harvest them this young. It's a waste of the good pods. The beans are at their best when fully mature and will eventually dry down to a creamy white with maroon speckles.
As a garden plant, Major Cook's Bean is not the most elegant but it more than makes up for it with its vigour. In my garden it has been completely untroubled by any pests, and although quite a few snails took up residence in its voluptuous foliage they didn't seem to do it any damage. The yields were stupendous. Even without regular picking (since I was growing it for seed I only picked a very few pods before maturity) it produced a totally mad number of pods and kept on going well into the autumn. The leaves are very large, bright green and coarse, and feel rough to the touch. They have large stipules and are prone to composites with four or five leaf lobes instead of the usual three. The flowers are mauve and quite pretty. When the pods are produced and the plants are covered with their burgundy-streaked crescents, they look much more attractive.
The catalogue description gives a little of the bean's history. It was donated to the Heritage Seed Library by Mr Luxton, who got them from his father in 1960. Mr Luxton senior had worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and was given the bean by a colleague, Major Cook. The catalogue suggests this happened in the 1920s but this has now been corrected - it was actually the 1950s.
In my original review I thanked Major Cook "whoever he may be" for his discernment in selecting this bean and preserving it for the future. Well I now know a bit more about who he was. I was recently contacted by his son Phil, who told me this:
"Major Cook was my father. Trained at Kew, London, where he was a Student in 1939. His first job was to train people to grow their own food as part of the war effort. Then he joined up in the Army in 1940, to be sent to various Arab nations on various missions for 5 years.
By 1945 he was a Major. He was tasked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with building the Cemeteries in Normandy, France, after the landings, and later to assist in rebuilding the 1st world war cemeteries in France.
Living in Albert, Somme, where Mr Harold “Lucky” Luxton was his right hand man. Also where I and my sister also grew up, from 1952 until 1970. We remember Mr. “Lucky” well.
The bean was probably much older however and could have come from Major H.V.Vokes, who was the first Horticultural Officer for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1920. (He was an uncle of Major Cook). The bean may even be older, in that Major Cook’s grandfather was also an experimental horticulturalist, he was Alderman F. Vokes, Sheriff of Southampton, UK, winner of over 1100 cups/awards for horticulture and there is a flower park named after him near the docks in Southampton."
Major Cook's Bean may originally have been developed by his grandfather, Alderman Vokes
I was intrigued to learn that Major Cook had lived in Albert on the Somme, because it's a place with a very special significance to me. I went there in 1996 during a pilgrimage to the battlefields, originally on the trail of Wilfred Owen who is among my very favourite poets, but it led on to other things. After visiting Albert I had some very strange and powerful dreams, and when I got home it all splurged out in the form of a play set in the WW1 trenches. The play got picked up by a professional theatre producer and premièred at the Grace Theatre in Battersea, London, in 1998. That's my little claim to fame - and for a while it looked like I had a literary career in front of me. Three years later I came out with a novel also set in WW1, with large parts of it set in Albert, but by that time my agent had sodded off (as agents do) and I wasn't able to place it anywhere. But that's a whinge for another day.
What's even more curious is that Phil's message arrived at the very same time I was scanning my Somme slides, as part of an ongoing effort to digitise my archive of film photographs taken during the 20 years before I went digital. I was literally right in the middle of sorting out the Albert pictures.
Albert became an iconic town during the first world war. It was an important strategic base and control centre for British troops, and consequently became a target for heavy bombardment. What was ironic was the town's motto Vis Mea Ferrum - my strength is in iron - adopted during the heyday of its local iron foundry, and which had something of a hollow ring to it by 1916 when heavy iron artillery shells had pounded most of the town to rubble. The basilica in the market square was topped by a gilded statue of the virgin holding the infant Jesus, his arms outstretched, high above her head. In early 1915 the tower was struck by a shell and the golden virgin lurched over, but remained attached to a tangle of metal which kept her suspended over the town square as if she was on a clockspring. She looked as if she was trying to hurl herself and the baby Jesus into the rubble below. Or blessing the chaos, depending how you look at it. It was a deeply striking image which was visible for miles around, and a superstition soon arose that whichever side shot her down would lose the war. Consequently she stayed up - despite more than three years of relentless bombardment in which the rest of the basilica was pulverised. The superstition turned out to be unfounded: it was the British artillery who finally shot her down in 1918 when Albert was briefly taken over by the Germans and there was concern that the tower would be used as an observation post. The statue was never found.
After the war the town was rebuilt, and the basilica reconstructed with a new (upright) madonna. Even now it's not hard to find the lingering scars … pockmarked bricks on the lower walls of buildings everywhere you look.
The town of Albert, Somme, where Major Cook was based. I took this photo while I was touring the battlefields in 1996. It shows a commemorative mural of the skydiving madonna, and the rebuilt basilica with the new statue on the top.
This first world war postcard shows what the basilica and golden virgin looked like in 1915, after a year of bombardment. You can imagine what state it was in by the end of the war.
During his time in Albert after WW2, Major Cook was superintendant of all the CWGC cemeteries in the Somme area. He gardened on a bombed out factory floor and operated a no-dig system (with compost and chicken/rabbit manure) which kept him self-sufficient in vegetables. He was an accomplished horticulturalist who collected and experimented widely, keeping a careful note of where each plant had come from. Another of his credits is the discovery of the Golden Leylandii, which he found growing in one of the cemeteries as a result of a natural hybrid. He promoted the use of evergreens in the CWGC cemeteries after the wipeout from Dutch Elm Disease.
As for Mr "Lucky" Luxton, whose family maintained the bean for the next 50 years and donated it to the Heritage Seed Library, he was a veteran of WW1 and spent most of his life with two bullets lodged in his chest. He'd survived a pelting of machine-gun fire which had hit him in the chest four times. Two of the bullets were removed but the other two were too close to his heart and had to stay there.
One of the cemeteries formerly cared for by Major Cook and Mr Luxton, photographed in 1996. The CWGC cemeteries are laid out as gardens, with immaculately maintained flower borders along the front of the graves. This is Dantzig Alley cemetery near Mametz, a few miles from Albert. Behind the wall are cornfields which were once the battlefields of the Somme.
My thanks to Phil for making the effort to get in touch and tell me about his father's work.