Broad Beans: Cultivating a Taste of History and Homegrown Delight
Updated: Oct 9
In a rural landscape where fields whisper ancient secrets and gardens and allotments harbour hidden treasures, one humble superstar shines bright—the broad bean, also known as the fava bean (Vicia faba). It's not just any legume; it's a legendary bean with a past that spans epochs and a flavour that pierces cleanly to thrill you in the present moment.
In 6000 BC the Middle East and North Africa were the hotbeds of bean cultivation. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans had already figured out that these little green wonders were culinary gems. Fast forward to 300 BC, and broad beans make their grand entrance in Europe. Roman chefs prepared lavish feasts featuring these beans, marking the beginning of a passionate culinary affair throughout Europe.
In folklore, broad beans have often played a role that transcends their humble existence in the kitchen garden. In various cultures, these beans have been woven into the fabric of fairytales and myths, casting their own spell on the narratives of old. Some tales speak of broad beans as tokens of good luck and prosperity. Famine stricken Sicilians in the Middle Ages prayed to St Joseph and survived only thanks to the resilient broad bean. The custom of leaving favas on altars on St Joseph's day in March continues there to the present time.
Pythagoras had a rather more complicated relationship with the bean and his disgust of it led to him forbidding his followers to eat it. Why, we'll never know but some say they cause flatulence or promote lasciviousness - presumably not at the same time for the same person. Legend has it that his dislike was so acute that he refused to even hide in a field of them to escape attackers and was ambushed and killed.
In other stories, they are the enchanted seeds that, when sown with care and kindness, grow into a ladder leading to far-off realms or giants' castles in the clouds. Whether as symbols of abundance, instruments of adventure, or simply as characters in the tales themselves, broad beans have carved a unique niche in the folklore of the world, adding whimsy to their already enchanting presence.
Today, the broad bean is a globetrotter with a passport full of stamps. While it started its journey in the Mediterranean, it now calls places like China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Australia home. These beans are ultimate travellers, adapting to different climates like seasoned explorers.
From the thirsty deserts of Egypt to the rolling vineyards of Tuscany, broad beans don't just survive, they thrive, gracing landscapes with their lush, green presence. I first noticed the beauty of the plants during lockdown as I took my daily walks around the fenland farms of East Anglia. The plant has natural grace, with a unique and understated beauty that captivates the eye. The leaves, a vibrant shade of green, gracefully flutter in the breeze, and as the plant matures, clusters of delicate, white, and deep purple blossoms emerge, each a work of art in itself. These blossoms, like fragrant chalices, hold the promise of future bounty. The broad bean plant is a study in natural elegance, reminding us that beauty can be found not only in the ornate but also in the simple and essential.
But the real magic happens in the kitchen. Fresh or dried, broad beans bring a touch of enchantment to your recipes. Sure, peeling them might feel like a chore, but the reward is pure culinary gold. Podding them is a meditative joy though there are distinct schools of thought when it comes to whether or not to discard the pale green/grey jackets once lightly boiled. Some might argue that you lose some of their essential expression by removing them, some enjoy the faintly bitter addition to the dish's final composition and bemoan the lost fibre, or perhaps simply can't be bothered. All valid, but I personally love the intense chlorophyll hit of these bright emerald jewels, naked and pure. And although a large of bowl may be initially intimidating to get through, slowly and steadily you do get through them. It takes a little time that I think of as an act of love towards whomever is going to eat them.
These beans are nutritional powerhouses, packing protein, fiber, and a treasure trove of vitamins and minerals; folate, iron, potassium—these beans have it all. Once peeled I tend to often simply have them on top of toast with cream cheese.
Planting broad beans was like planting a piece of history in my garden. I watched as the sturdy stalks pushed through the soil, thrilled as their leaves unfurled and revealed the gorgeous flowers. They take very little effort to nurture not even requiring the staking and trellising of many other legumes. As you savour their tender but intense simplicity, there is a profound connection to the past and the present. Their rich history deserves to be celebrated, they've worked hard for millennia. In these dog days of summer, I'm reminiscing about the best things this last season brought and high on the list is the tantalising memory of the first basket of baby broad beans I picked in July.
Recipe for 4
This is adapted from a recipe on the Waitrose app.
250g broad beans (fresh or frozen)
1 tbs Butter
2 onions sliced thinly
150 g chicken livers
300 ml chicken stock
100g soft goat's cheese
Balsamic glaze to dress
4 Sourdough toast slices
Blanch the beans for 2-3 minutes then plunge into iced water and peel outer skins (recommended but not essential)
Melt the butter in a large frying pan then on a high heat cook the chicken livers for about 4-5 minutes, moving them often until they're cooked but still a bit pink inside. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
In the same pan add the olive oil and sweat the onions down until they're beyond golden but not burnt! Add a splash of sherry to deglaze the pan and then the stock and allow thatto bubble down until thickened slightly. Add the livers back in and the broad beans.
Serve on the toast and crumble the cheese on top. Finally drizzle the balsamic glaze over it and it's ready.
I'll leave you with a poem by the incomparable John Clare.
by John Clare
I love the black e'en o' the scented bean blossom And think o the dark eye of somebody Its whiteness is just like the hue o her bosom And thats my ain beautiful somebody I luik on the flowers as I think on her face They remind me o' sweet somebody I long then to meet her in just such a place A loving kiss I'd gie to somebody How sweet the bean blossoms how rich the hedge rose They seem like the presence of somebody There's some like her features some hued like her clothes They make me keep thinking o' somebody In the west white and red clouds of even Still bring me the image o' somebody The fairest of all under Heaven Is my beautiful lovely Miss somebody Bean blossoms from furrow to ridge Scenting sweetly remind me o somebody The roses in bloom on the hedge Are just like the image o somebody I loo the black e'e o bean blossoms Theyre like the sweet eyes o somebody The lily reminds me of bosoms And that is the bosom o somebody