Rachel Roddy's recipe for string bean, potato, and fennel soup

Dried broad beans soften into a magic concoction with a smooth, comforting texture that's perfect for winter soups

About 14 miles west of Leicester is a hamlet called Barton in the Beans. I only went to Google Street View but it is mentioned in the Book of Doomsday as Bartone, which signifies a barley stable or farm owned by a noble host. It is recorded as having a population of three households in 1086, placing it within the smallest 20% of recorded settlements (although, rest assured, the landlord, Hugh of Grandmesnil, and his family owned a great deal of other land). Bartone became Barton in Fabis, fabis became Latin for bean, in this case vicia faba – broad bean, fava or faba – and then Barton in the Beans: the production is immortalized in a name. Importantly, however, the cultivation of peas in the area – and the consumption of both peas and beans by humans and animals – predates its name, going back to the Iron Age, and possibly even the Bronze Age. 170 miles south, in Somerset, a string bean variety takes the name of the village where they originate; Martock beans became a staple not only for fasts and bean feasts, but were also a fundamental part of the medieval survival diet. They are eaten both fresh and dry, meaning boiled for soups and stews, baked in the oven or ground into flour. According to Marwood Yeatman, in his book The Last Food of England, Martock's bean is mentioned in a 1273 manorial scroll, as well as in a saying that reads: "If you shake a man Martock, he shakes."

Dry long bean toys are good toys. Especially if it's a split one, which looks like a button of poor bone or teeth, and, when held between cupped hands, is about as good as a whisk. They mellow to a creamy and starchy state, with a flavor that sits somewhere between pea, cannellini beans, chickpea, and chestnut; I like split peas even though they require a long soaking. The fact that they only need a brief, skippable one makes them all the more lovable and useful.

They are also naughty nuts that trick you twice. First when they tell you they won't soften, so you chase a round in the pan, tasting and worrying, and the next thing you know it's a creamy, crumbly soup. The second time is when you set the table, they change the soup to hummus. That's why you should pay attention to liquid levels when making this week's recipe for chickpea, potato, and fennel soup. If you don't like dill, you can substitute scallions and parsley for green flecks.

Going back to sayings, there's the East Midlands equivalent of Barton in the Beans, recorded by John Benjamin Firth in the 1926 book Highways and Byways of Leicestershire: Stomach." No messing around with soup of course – too comforting for that.

  • Long bean, potato and dried fennel soup
  • Soak 1 hour (optional)
  • Preparation 5 min
  • Cook 50 minutes
  • Serving 4
  • 200g dry long beans (peeled and split).
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and diced
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and diced, with lacy leaves separated
  • Salt and black pepper

If you have time, soak dry long beans in water for one hour, then drain. If you don't have time, they will just take longer to cook.

In a soup pot, soften the onions in olive oil with a pinch of salt, then add the beans, potatoes and fennel and cook, stirring frequently, for a few minutes.

Add 1.3 liters of water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook, covered halfway, for 40 minutes, or until beans are soft and fall apart. The soup should still be slightly brothy, so add a little water if needed.

In the final moments of cooking, taste and add salt and pepper as needed, and the fennel leaves. Serve with a swirl of olive oil.

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