Gigantes (Giant Beans) Cure Homesickness for Greece

Sunburned on Limnos

Sunburned on Limnos

Birds singing, doves cooing, roosters crowing, cats meowing, dogs barking, engines revving, women chattering: the morning sounds of a Greek village.

When we’re in Atsiki on the island of Limnos, Greece, I treasure my last few minutes in bed listening to the village come alive. I force myself to get up before vendors start hawking their wares.

“Potatoes, onions! Good for storing.” The cries echo off stone-walled houses lining narrow village streets. “Sardines, bream, octopus, squid. Very fresh fish!” When the fish man comes, I grab money and run to catch him; the seafood comes from the surrounding Aegean Sea and is impeccably fresh.

Tinny music, the same song played repeatedly, heralds the arrival of gypsies who travel from island to island in large Mercedes trucks. “Shoes, shirts, sweaters, pants, socks, underwear,” the recording blares over and over and over as the truck drives slowly through the village.

The cries change from season to season: “Tablecloths, sheets, blankets.” “Rugs, beautiful rugs.” “Chairs, tables, good for your veranda, tables, chairs.” When the truck stops to complete a sale, the cries cease, but the music’s volume rises. If the sale is to one of our neighbors, blasting music from the idling truck reverberates through our house.

Some truck vendors don’t bother wending their way through narrow village streets, and set up shop in a square or by the side of the road. Some of these vendors are local islanders, but most seem to be from northern Greece. They arrive on ferries that connect Limnos to Thessaloniki, Kavala, and Alexandroupoli.

Dried Gigantes (Giant Greek Beans)

Dried Gigantes (Giant Greek Beans)

In fall, I seek out bean vendors from Greece’s northern border, who sell many varieties of dried legumes. Beans need plenty of water to thrive, a resource rare on Greece’s rocky islands, but plentiful in its remote northern upland regions.

Gigantes (Giant Beans)

My favorite beans are called gigantes (γίγαντες, pronounced YEE-gahn-tess) or elephantes, meaning “giant” or “elephant” beans. Gigantes are large white kidney-shaped beans, belonging to the species Phaseolus coccineus (multiflorus); scarlet runner beans also belong to this species. (Gigantes are sometimes mistakenly referred to as lima beans, butter beans, white kidney beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, Phaseolus lunatus, or Phaseolus limensis.)

The only difference between gigantes and elephantes is size; 1000 gigantes weigh between 1200 and 1800 grams (about 2 1/2 – 4 pounds), while 1000 elephantes weigh more than 1800 grams (about 4 pounds).

1. Dried Navy Beans 2. Dried Gigantes 3. Soaked Gigantes 4. Cooked Gigantes

1. Dried Navy Beans 2. Dried Gigantes 3. Soaked Gigantes 4. Cooked Gigantes

Gigantes and elephantes from the Kastoria, Florina, and Drama regions of Greece are recognized by the European Union as products of Protected Geographic Indication (PGI). Like French appellations for wine, PGI designations identify foods grown in unique regions that have special qualities and characteristics worthy of appreciation and protection.

Every fall I buy enough gigantes to bring back to Alaska for the year; when I get homesick for Greece, all I need to do is make some gigantes. This past year, my gigantes came from Kastoria. Gigantes have been grown in Kastoria for 300 years; the geography, soil, and climate create perfect conditions for their growth. Kastoria gigantes are harvested by hand beginning in September, and dried in the sun before being shelled.

Gigantes (Greek Giant White Beans) in Tomato Sauce

Gigantes (Greek Giant White Beans) in Savory Tomato Sauce

Gigantes in tomato sauce (Gigantes Plaki – Γίγαντες Πλακί) is a wildly popular item in homes and tavernas across Greece. It’s typically served as part of the Greek appetizer course called mezedes (μεζέδες). Gigantes are also tasty when boiled and dressed simply with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and salt for a salad, or pureed with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt for a wonderful bean skordalia.

Gigantes are available at Greek and Middle Eastern markets, and from many internet sellers.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:



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29 Responses to Gigantes (Giant Beans) Cure Homesickness for Greece

  1. Stunning. I felt I was right there with you, waking to those sounds.

    Delicious beans!

  2. Laurie, Gigantes are one of the best Greek dishes and I might just make a batch this week.

    I too love the sounds of Greek life. I now (despite my late nights) wake up every Tuesday morning to go to the Laiki Agora for groceries and the hub-bub.

  3. What a beautifully evocative post – it took me right into the heart of a Greek village. I found your information on the PGI interesting – before I moved in-house, I was an IP lawyer.

  4. My son has been asking me to make them since he came back from Crete and I’ve been wanting to make gigantes since Peter posted but haven’t yet with so many other things in my list to do. Now I’ll have to wait for my son to come back from Australia and I shall definitely cook them. Castoria, Florina and Drama are renowned for their beans. Yummy.

  5. Gretchen Noelle says:

    Yum! These look an awful lot like the giant lima beans I can get here. I may have to try the recipe with them.

  6. Baking History says:

    Hi Laurie,
    this is a very interesting post; I will look for this type of beans to try the recipe you give for gigantes in tomato sauce.

  7. I’m way behind with reading your blog, but I’m glad that I checked it out today. I LOVE gigantes. I make them often but they’re never quiet right. I think that the next time that I make them I’ll try some of your techniques, like boiling the beans with bay leaves-I’ve never done that.
    I’m in a “beany” mood, just made “fakes” for lunch. I think that as soon as we’re finished with this pot I’ll go ahead and make gigantes.
    Ciao! Patatas! Domatas! Kareklas! (hee, hee)

  8. Wonderful post. You write beautifully!

  9. JennDZ - The Leftover Queen says:

    What a great post. I loved the story behind this dish. That sauce sounds great!

  10. Waking to the sounds of village life rather than the street sweeper scraping city curbs is my idea of paradise.

    Thanks, Laurie, for this beautiful bean recipe!

  11. Thanks for the primer on gigantes! I love beens of all types but was never quite certain what they were…not that I can get them here but if I ever see them, now I know.

  12. Those beans are big! The tomato sauce sounds tasty. I will have to see if I can find some of those beans.

  13. Lucy, that’s the best compliment you could give. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And the beans are delicious!

    Peter, I’d love to try yours! And you are definitely a night owl.

    Gaye, thank you. IP is a very complex field, but quite interesting. I loved finding the EU regulation on gigantes.

    Ivy, you’re a good mom!

    Gretchen, I’ve never tried them with limas, but I’ve read other places that they can be substituted.

    Manuela, you should be able to find them easily in Boston, I would think.

    Cheryl, I am so beany this week it’s unbelievable. Fakes a couple days ago for dinner then for lunch, plus revithia tonight. Can’t wait to hear how your gigantes come out!

    Ann, thank you very much.

    Jenn, believe me, the sauce is great. Glad you liked the story.

    Susan, it’s pretty nice, that’s for sure. On the other hand, listening to the street sweeper has its own charm, in a gritty, city kind of way.

    Katie, you can make the same recipe with any large white beans. But if you ever do see gigantes, definitely buy them – they are wonderful.

    Kevin, they are called giants for a reason! I’m positive you can find them in Toronto. Maybe not the PGI kind, but that doesn’t matter one whit.

  14. bird's eye view says:

    I love beans of all kinds – wish I had thought to buy some and bring them back from my vacation last year in Greece. And..I envy you for living in Greece!

  15. I would love to wake up in Greece listening to those sounds… a dream vacation…

  16. Hey Laurie, looks like we cooked similar food this week! I only just caught up on your blog and found the recipe for gigantes.

  17. Bird’ Eye, you can buy them at any Greek or Middle Eastern market, or you can order them from Amazon and many other internet sellers. They’ll remind you of your vacation!

    Cris, maybe you should make reservations!

    Hi Maria! Indeed – it’s gigantes weather (and now you know why I happened to have so much info about them on hand)!

  18. Ooh, tagging this right away; must try it! I’ve had gigantes in tomato sauce just once, at a local Greek restaurant. I’d love to make them myself, using your recipe.

  19. You’ve just described two of my favorite memories of living in greece- the vendors selling random items out of the back of trucks (“tables, watermelons, fresh fish!), and gigantes, my favorite greek dish. Thanks for the recipe!

  20. Yum! one of my favourite Greek dishes. I can never get tired of gigantes 😀

  21. Lisa, gigantes are really a treat – I hope you have the opportunity to make them yourself.

    Maddy, yes, I love the vendors too. I’m glad the piece brought back good memories for you.

    Bijoux, me either!

  22. ThreeTastes says:

    Ooohh, a new legume to search out. This looks really good!

  23. What a beautiful essay this is! I can just imagine the creamy taste of the bean enveloped by that spicy sauce.

  24. This is a beautiful post – you’ve painted a very beautiful picture of Greece for me – will surely be back to read more posts.

  25. Manju, I do love my legumes, and this is a particularly good one.

    Napur, thank you for the kind words!

    Sra, Greece is wonderful and I’m so glad you liked the post. Thanks for stopping by!

  26. I thoroughly enjoyed this post with the sounds of Greece. Interesting that you mentioned about the cooking time being shorter for fresh beans … I have noticed this too as I have recently found “local” beans. The taste is better too. I found you through the Legume Event. Thanks.

  27. Meg, I agree with your observation about the better taste of local beans. As for the legume event – all I wish is that I had time to make them all! Susan did a really nice job with her round-up and making all the food sound very appealing.

  28. here in Greece, i learned from my mother-in-law ,to cover with olive oil the unused portion in a can of tomato paste, and keep on fridge door. it seals it perfectly, and keeps for weeks.
    i'd love to know what island here in greece you spend time on, Laurie 🙂

  29. I tired this amazing recipe which has been in my bookmarks forever. With an abundance of home grown tomatoes it couldn't wait any longer. I Indianized the recipe a bit but keeping the tomato sauce idea intact. Tomatoes with the smooth Lima beans were just perfect. Thank you.

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