History of the Tarbais Bean
Bean : a native of the New World
Bibliographical research has identified the ancestor of corn
in Mexico, where it was grown by the Aztecs and already associated
with the bean and the pumpkin. The Mexicans called the reddish,
kidney-shaped seed “ayacolt”, the origin of our word “haricot”.
One of the first products imported from South America in the
16th century, the bean arrived in Europe in the hold of Christopher
COLUMBUS’ ship. An interesting note is that when Catherine de’
Medici, the future wife of Henry II of France, disembarked at
Marseilles in 1553, she took out from her trousseau a bag of
“fagioli”, the beans later known as “haricots”.
From the Mexican
haricot to the Tarbais Bean...
Phaseolus Vulgaris arrived in the valleys of the Pyrenees by
Spain. It was planted on the plain of Tarbes at the beginning
of the 18th century, at the same time as maize or “large millet”,
by Monsignor de POUDENX, Bishop of the Tarbes diocese.
In those dark days when famine was rife, these new miracle commodities
found its ideal climate and soil in the region of Bigorre .
bean for two of maize...
As the Tarbais Bean is a climbing plant, it was very soon
planted alongside maize, whose stalks supported it and thus
the two plants spread very rapidly across the plain of Tarbes,
where it became the norm to plant one haricot bean between two
adjacent maize stems.
Later, research showed that the haricot has evolved from the
original common type, adapting to different climatic and environmental
This natural selection, which began in the 18th century, has
resulted in the treasure we grow today.
From the end of the 18th century, many bibliographical sources
tell of the sudden increase in Tarbais Bean production...
In 1838, in the Hautes-Pyrenees Region, the area
of dry bean cultivation (a mixture of haricots, peas and broad
beans) was 14,000 hectares, which amounted at that time to a
production figure of 13,128 hectolitres (1 hl = 75 to 80 kg
In 1881, cultivation
spread even further, following the crisis in vine-growing
caused by powdery mildew. Tarbais Bean were planted on an
area of 18,500 hectares and production reached 37,000 hectolitres
(approx. 3,000 metric tons). Consumption quadrupled and in a
dry season, the region could not supply enough beans. It was
the heyday of "Haricot Maize". It was a standby for
daily consumption, for trade and for the army (Tarbes being
a garrison town). Later, despite its role as an exported vegetable
(the only one apart from fodder plants), its importance decreased,
though remaining considerable.
In 1906, 12,000 hectares were still planted, with a production
of 30,000 hectolitres, of which more than half were sold in
Paris and Bordeaux.
In 1923, 11,500 hectares were given over to beans : the equivalent
of 9.2% of the tillable land in the Region of the Hautes-Pyrenees.
Until the 1950s or 60s, beans were sold at the Marcadieu
market in Tarbes in 80 kg sacks. It is said that… “The dealers
flung themselves at the sacks to buy the beans. Taillefer
took a whole loaded lorry. We used to sell 2 or 3 sacks.
It’s what made us well off. We could pay our TV....”. Beans
were sent to Bordeaux and even to Algeria. Very soon it was
recognised that Bigorre was particularly suitable for this variety
and the Marcadieu Market in Tarbes (the Thursday market) was
the biggest and best-known place for the trade in this type
of bean. Nonetheless, the beans could still be found at
all the small markets in the area. The wholesalers who came
to buy increased the bean’s reputation. So, this kind of bean
was sold throughout the Midi and gradually became known first
as the "Tarbes Bean" and then as the "Tarbais
The period of
In the 1950s, the introduction of high-yield hybrid varieties
of maize tolled the knell for the cultivation of beans which
had previously guaranteed Bigorre’s prosperity. Faced with the
intensive cultivation of maize, beans, which were less profitable
and relied almost entirely on hard, manual labour, became a
minor crop. Unlike other varieties of bean, Tarbais Beans
cannot be harvested mechanically. Also, there are fewer families
of growers and their children are sent to school at a much earlier
age. With manual harvesting, production of the Tarbais Bean
no longer has a place in so-called “intensive” cultivation.
So, in comparison to 1930, when almost 10,000 hectares of Tarbais
Beans were recorded, the two general agricultural censuses
held in 1970 and 1980 revealed that there are no more than 55
hectares left across the 650 farms in the Hautes-Pyrenees
In fact, the official statistics cannot paint the true picture
of the importance of bean cultivation.
Beans may no longer be grown in the field, but they
are always been found in the vegetable garden. In the Adour
Plain, almost every garden has 4 or 5 rows of beans, especially
as the women who grow them sell them on the markets at Tarbes
The Tarbais Bean remains an important part of the local country
diet in the areas far from towns and markets and the seed, guarded
jealously by individual families, is handed down from generation
to generation, even today.
renewal of the Tarbais Bean
In 1986, a meeting between a Councillor in the Tarbes Department
of Agriculture (Pierre PUJOL) and a group of bean growers
led to an idea : “Wouldn’t the Tarbais Bean be a means of
diversification for agriculture in the Region, which is faced
with difficulties in large-scale farming production (of cereals,
milk and meat) ?”
The relaunch of the Tarbais Bean is the result of that thought...
Encouraged by those involved in the meeting, a dozen growers
agreed to join in the experiment. Some were young people, seeking
to supplement their income... but there were also some old hands,
who wanted to pass on a valuable and ancient tradition they
THE STORY IS STILL GOING ON....
Cooperative du HaricotTarbais
- ZA Bastillac Nord - 65000 Tarbes - FRANCE
- Tel : + 33 (0)562 347 676 -