These thin-skinned elephant beans, boiled and then finished off to a buttery tenderness in the oven with a garlicky tomato sauce, are a wonderful mezes and pair perfectly with grilled country sausage or singlino (cured pork in olive oil) and a host of fish dishes such as grilled sardines or fried squid or a fan of fried sand smelt (atherina). Humble but glorious food. The smaller plake beans make the perfect fasolada, the traditional and regionally varied bean soup that is closer to a national dish in my view than such less frequently prepared culinary latecomers as moussakas.
But these beans also tell a story.
The first documented references to bean cultivation in the area of the Prespes Lakes in Florina in Northern Greece date back to the 1920s, though beans almost certainly had been grown there for centuries. The lakeshore’s microclimate (low summer temperatures, for example) and soil conditions are especially propitious for the cultivation of legumes, and the Prespes beans—the giant elephant beans and the smaller plake megalosperma—were declared a Protected Destination of Origin as early as 1994. A lack of standardization, however, and an inability to protect the local product from inroads made by cheap imitation competitors meant that local cultivators would often be left at the end of the season with a thousand tons of unsold beans and producer prices that hovered around 30 cents a kilo.
In 2003 thirty local cultivators banded together, each contributing a hefty share of capital, and formed the Pelikanos Prespes National Park Agricultural Cooperative. With additional investment funds provided by the Ministry of Development, a modern sorting and packing center was built in 2008 and an Integrated Management System was put in place. In the same year, the Prespes elephant and plake beans were accorded a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Under its president Nikos Stergiou the cooperative became particularly vigilant about protecting the cooperative’s beans going so far, as in a recent incident in Thessaloniki in which apparently beans from China were being passed off as Prespes beans, as to send off the suspect product to a German lab for DNA analysis.
The Pelikanos cooperative is an instructive example of the synergy of local initiative, regional development policy and good business practice. Its success is shown not only in increased production and higher volumes of exports but also in much better prices for the local producers, which in turn has given a boost to the local economy. The cooperative’s beans are available under its own Pelikanos label but also in the excellent series of high-quality Greek food products put out by Ergon.
I am indebted to Roza Krameri for information on the history of the Pelikanos Cooperative.