Broad beans, vicia faba, come from the Fabaceace family also referred to as the vetch or pea family. It is an annual plant with beautiful edible flowers, commonly pale white, streaked with purple; other varieties sprout pinks, purples and velvet-like brown. Common names for this legume are horse, field or windsor bean and also faba or fava bean. (Curiously, though, fava bean is tautological as fava or faba is the Latin word for bean.)
Although their exact origin is unknown, broad beans were used in the Middle East long before they reached Western shores where they were the first beans used in Europe. Egyptians cultivated the beans (remains of which have been found in tombs), and in Ancient Rome the beans were used in funeral rites. The Romans believed the souls of the departed resided in beans, which were said to be shaped like the doors to hell. This underworld thread is echoed today in the Italian biscuits fave di morte, bean-shaped cookies, made with almonds, pine nuts and grappa for All Souls’ Day.
Like all legumes, broad bean crops are very good for soil health as they help replenish and add essential nitrogen to the land; post-harvest, the plants can be broken up and added back to the soil. They are grown through the winter months, intolerant of heat but can happily withstand harsh cold climates. A slow crop to grow makes them uneconomical for smaller farmers; on a commercial scale, they are grown in a rush, unfortunately, at the expense of flavour. Grown well, though, they are prolific and will produce a good yield.
Smaller young broad beans at the beginning of the season are beautifully sweet and often don’t need to be double podded. The shoots, leaves and tips at this stage are also delicious to eat. As they become older, and later in the season, broad beans begin to taste unpleasant with a strange mealy texture. A helpful tip for aspiring kitchen-garden growers who want to know when their broad beans are in their prime for picking comes from my friend Phil the farmer: “It’s like an erect penis. If you squeeze and it’s too hard, there’s something wrong with it. On the otherhand, if it’s at all flaccid, you know it’s not a goer either. Flaccid ones need more time.”
“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Apart from being one of the best lines from a movie and a delicious flavour combination (imagine livers seared with a charry crust, left rare and sauced with pan juices, a little chicken stock, some butter and a handful of broad beans warmed through at the end) – this line from Hannibal Lecter alludes to one of the bean’s numerous medical curiosities: the fact that not only broad beans but also liver and some types of red wine should be avoided when taking a particular class of antidepressants, which are also are used to treat various personality disorders. So it was Hannibal’s clever way of saying he was not taking his medication.
Other medical curiosities about this seemingly innocent green pod abound. My first inkling of its magical properties was when, while cooking in an Italian restaurant, I was warned there was a customer who couldn’t eat broad beans because it made them hallucinate. Though that went unconfirmed, there is a serious condition endemic to people of Mediterranean background called favism, which affects the red blood cells. The affliction occurs when undercooked broad beans are eaten or, for some who are especially vulnerable, when the pollen is inhaled.
On a more positive note for this humble bean, eating lots of them can create a hostile environment in the body for malaria, with favas containing a similar chemical compound to quinine. Fava beans and its plant also contain levodopa, a chemical used in treating Parkinson’s disease.
Standing in the way of the widespread enjoyment of broad beans is the preparation required. A huge pile of pods must first be peeled, the inside of which are spongy and silky, to produce a mere handful of edible produce that still needs to be blanched, iced and skinned before consuming. I believe it’s worth it though to reach the plant's beautiful bright green and gentle heart.
With a short season, broad beans are often found and used in their dried form. Deep-fried they are an excellent snack eaten all over, from Asia to Peru, and pureed they can become a silky hummus-like dip, called various titles, but known as bisarra in Morocco; in Greece served warm and sometimes garnished with caramelised onion. The beans are also used in a very traditional Egyptian dish,
ful medames, eaten for breakfast and found in cuisines all over the Middle East and Africa. The beans are found, too, in doubanjiang (chilli bean paste), a paste made with fermented soy and broad beans and chilli, which is used in Sichuanese cooking, including mapo tofu.
Delicious though these dried preparations are, a great indulgence and perfect celebration of spring is a bowl of these fresh beauties with podded peas, blanched and served with nothing but extra virgin oil, butter and seasoning.
Cook Tama's broad bean recipes
This salad is an excellent side dish yet substantial enough on its own to serve as a light spring lunch.
This is a delightful starter, almost a salad but really a dippy thing. The spices give it a hint of the Middle East. Be warned: this is garlicky, but the yoghurt tempers its heat.
I have a special fondness for risoni. It’s an ingredient I turn to for comfort yet it has a lovely lightness to it.
These little fritters are like a light and fresh spring falafel.
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.
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