I discovered this dish thanks to an episode of a Rick Stein show set in the Pyrenees. Boles de picolaut: Catalan meatballs in a spiced tomato sauce with beans and olives. Not a combination I would have thought would work, but it really does. In my source recipe, the sauce is flavoured with cinnamon and a mix of mild and hot chilli, while the meatballs are made from sausage meat, beef mince, garlic, and parsley.
This dish is described as ‘Catalan’. While this might make you automatically think of Spain, there’s more to it than that. The author of the blog I sourced my recipe from explains that she aims to promote North and South Catalonia by talking about its traditions, food, etcetera. In fact, after a little research, I discovered that some people (often labelled separatists) refer to a section of France north of the Pyrenees as ‘North Catalonia’, and the city of Perpignan as its capital (SudOuest). Historically, the area was part of Spain up until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, and it corresponds to the French department of Pyrénées-Orientales (Britannica). Needless to say, there is certainly an Iberian influence in the region’s cuisine, and this is evident in this dish's spiciness and name, from what I understand.
When lard isn’t lard - plenty of false friends
My recipe included the following instruction:
…faire chauffer l'huile (ou le saindoux), faire fondre le lard
(word-for-word translation: heat the oil (or the lard), and melt the bacon)
French lard is (normally) ‘bacon’, whereas English ‘lard’ is French saindoux. However, lard can also be used to refer to ‘fat’, for instance the fat within the slice of bacon, as in: Mon frère adore manger le lard qui entoure la tranche de jambon. And it can refer to someone’s weight, i.e. faire du lard – ‘put on weight’.
All of this can be a tad confusing! What’s more, sometimes ‘bacon’ is also used in French, although I think this seems to be more common in Canadian French.
Meanwhile, the English also use the French term ‘lardons’ – ‘strips of larding fat […] cut from the belly fat (lard maigre) of pork’ (Larousse Gastronomique).
I was a little puzzled that my recipe called for ‘lard salé’ (salted bacon) – since surely all bacon is salted? Well, apparently you can make bacon without salt , or with low levels of salt, but it’s far from the norm. So, I’m still confused. Maybe salé is used here to help differentiate – clarifying that they’re indicating the bacon as a whole, rather than the fat within the bacon slices? I decided to simply leave out 'salted' in my translation.
Haricots blancs – what are they?
A key ingredient in this dish is haricots blancs, or ‘white beans’. But what sort of bean are they? In a British supermarket, you can’t pick ‘white beans’ off the shelf. And not only because canned foods are in short supply right now. But because we don’t have a product we call by that name. Sure, you can buy various types of white beans: cannellini beans, butter beans, or interestingly ‘haricot beans’ (bean beans?!).
'small, oval, plump and creamy-white with a mild flavour and smooth, buttery texture. In the US, they are known as navy beans and are the classic ingredient in Boston baked beans. Haricot beans are widely used in the cooking of countries such as France, Spain, Portugal and South America’
Meanwhile, a friend’s book of French to English food terminology offers these translations for haricot blanc: white kidney bean, or bush bean. And various websites explain that the white kidney bean and the cannellini bean are one and the same (Oxford Vitality, Healthy Eating). Then there’s this website, which describes various types of white beans from an American perspective, including the aforementioned ‘navy bean’, which this blog explains is France’s most popular white dried bean… known as the Haricot blanc.
Right, I’m officially confused!
Never mind, the trusty Larousse Gastronomique provides some clarification with their long list and description of bean varieties, including the following which I believe corresponds to the French haricot blanc:
Small white haricot (navy) beans: The seeds of the haricot (French bean), these are used in France for cassoulet [...] The navy bean is a strain specially bred in the United States for the canning industry, the navy connection dating from 1875, when the beans were canned with molasses to feed the fleet.
So, as far as I understand, a haricot blanc is a 'haricot bean' in the UK. A similar but distinct variety is the 'navy bean' in the US, originally used in the precursor to 'baked beans', which went on to become a phenomenal success in the UK.
From a cooking perspective, it’s a bit of a moot point, since, especially now, we’re likely to use whatever type of bean we can get our hands on.
When it came to cooking, I actually borrowed a few elements from another recipe (which I can no longer find – woops!), and substituted some ingredients. For my beans, I used dried cannellini beans, cooking them with garlic and herbs. I swapped sausage meat for pork mince, and added in extra veg by following the mirepoix instructions from my second source recipe. Not having the precise spices needed, I substituted nearest equivalents. And finally, I didn’t have eggs, so used chia seeds for a substitute – you’d never have known!
Despite these changes, to a large extent I followed my main source recipe, and the result was surprisingly moreish. It was pleasantly spicy, with just a small kick. The cinnamon wasn’t discernible, but I think it helped add a depth of flavour. It’s definitely a hearty dish for cooler weather, and goes well with a hunk of bread on the side.
Recipe and substitution ideas
Despite all that bean chat, I’m sure you’ll be forgiven for using whatever you’ve got. Tinned is definitely easier and quicker, but dried is also great as they retain a bit more bite - just make sure you follow the instructions to soak and cook properly.
If, like me, you don’t have eggs, use one of the handy dandy substitutes, like chia seeds or aquafaba (the liquid from tinned chickpeas), mentioned is this great Guardian article.
No idea right now! It largely depends on what I can make with what I lay my hands on.