Northern Advocate Column

In love with broad beans

s-l30031 October 2015

I’ve fallen in love with broad beans. It’s a late romance. As a child there was only antagonism. And after that our paths didn’t cross for many years, not until a recent interest in growing my own food.

My initial decision to plant broad beans was based on a desire to grow a vegetable that was high in protein (around 26g per 100g). And like all legumes they take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the ground, thus I’d be maintaining an essential element in the soil for other plants.

I figured that once I had grown the broad beans I would learn how to enjoy eating them. So when faced with a bountiful harvest I turned to Google to find some recipes. This led me to the Egyptian national dish called ful medames, which consists of boiled broad beans (or fava beans as they’re known) mashed with olive oil, salt and cumin. The dish is typically eaten with bread for breakfast. It was a taste revelation, especially with the addition of a little garlic. I then tried broad bean hummus, followed by frying shelled broad beans in oil and drying them to create a snack that’s popular in Latin America and China.

Part of my love affair with the broad bean is the romantic connection it offers to other cultures and countries. Because the bean is so easy to grow, even in poor quality clay soils, it’s been part of the Mediterranean diet for 6000 years. Hence its importance to many peoples across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The fact that it can survive winter and provide a vital food source in early spring, when there’s little else to harvest, has probably contributed to its importance. 

The broad bean was a staple of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. In Greece, dried beans were used as voting tokens in the democratic assemblies of city states. The bean was considered to be a food of the dead in many cultures and used in offerings to deceased ancestors. Another reason the broad bean was revered by Mediterranean cultures was that the outside of the bean was thought to look like female genitalia, while when peeled a small penis and testicles were revealed. Such an amazing phenomenon had to be special! Next time you’re peeling a broad bean look closely.

I’ve currently got copious broad bean plants growing all over my backyard. Their speed of growth in early spring is amazing, which is perhaps the origin of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Next to them in the garden are tall artichoke plants, which has given me an idea for the next broad bean recipe I want to try: a Greek dish of lightly boiled early season broad beans with artichoke hearts, onion, lemon, olive oil, parsley and dill. Eating it I’ll be able to imagine myself outside a white-washed brick taverna on a sun-soaked Greek island. That’s what food can do for you, transport you to another time and place. Knowing something of the stories, traditions and landscapes attached to a food as humble as the broad bean can make it taste that much nicer.

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