This is Italy’s answer to Hoppin’ John, that mixture of black-eyed peas and pork brought to Charleston, S.C., by slaves from Africa.
Some years ago, I was about to leave New York for a brief expedition into the interior of French Guiana. The trip eventually yielded many gastronomic adventures peccary barbecues by the wild Maroni River, stewed armadillo at a restaurant in Cayenne, and a curiously tasteless mangosteen stolen from a botanical garden in upland Jamaica. In a sense, however, the most riveting incident associated with this sojourn in the tropics occurred shortly before I left New York. It had to do with beans of the most traditional Northern Hemisphere sort, the species known to science as Vicia faba, England’s broad bean, Italy’s fava.
On the advice of a doctor, I had begun to take a quinine derivative to build up my resistance to malaria. Shortly thereafter, a brief episode of urinary bleeding sent me back to the same physician, who asked me many surprising questions. He wanted to know if I had any ancestors from the Mediterranean region. And, strangest of all, he asked If I had eaten fava beans recently.
Well, as it happened, I had, two days before at a Lebanese restaurant. I didn’t think I had any Levantine forebears. But what was this all about? In addition to the various, more mundane problems the doctor was considering (quinine sensitivity, kidney stones), he had also thought to determine if I had a deficiency, common around the Mediterranean, of a blood enzyme called glucoses-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD). If that was the case, it was just possible that either quinine or favas had touched off my bleeding. It turned out that I had plenty of G6PD, and my fleeting symptoms remained undiagnosed. While I have always regretted that I do not suffer from so recherché and elegant a malady as favism, I have decided that I am far happier to be able to indulge in favas unafraid. In our climate, roughly similar lima beans grow more easily. Favas like cool, moist conditions, such as they find in Europe, where their delicate flavor has made them a favorite since Homeric times. In a memorable, rustic simile from The Iliad, an arrow rebounding upward from the breastplate of Menelaus is compared to “dark-skinned favas and chickpeas” that “rise from a great threshing floor when struck by the winnower’s fan.” Theocritus, father of the pastoral, returned to the fava in his seventh idyll: “And on that day I will wreathe my brows … and draw the wine of Ptelea from the bowl as I lie by the fire, and someone will roast me favas in the fire.”
By Theocritus’s time, many authors had turned the fava and its Homeric companion the chickpea to literary account. Plato linked them together in The Republic. Xenophon, in a passage Theocritus evidently had in mind, wrote: “We must say such things while lying by the fire on a soft divan in winter season, being full, drinking sweet wine, munching chickpeas.” Xenophon left out the favas; Theocritus put them back into his pastiche of Xenophon and left out the chickpeas. And underlying this learned bucolic play is a straightforward culinary fact. The ancients relished favas and chickpeas in their dried form. Today, a crazed fava hunger seizes Europeans in the spring, when the first favas come on the market, tender and green, edible raw from the pod.
On May Day in Rome, the greengrocers of the Campo dei Fiori sell picnickers piles of favas. Families trek off with their beans to simple restaurants for a scampagnata fuoriporta, a picnic outside the walls of the city. They order wine, shuck their favas, and eat them as is, or they may wrap them in slices of salami.
In England, the same madness possesses all classes of people. The season is somewhat later, but by the end of June, you will find “broad beans” holding pride of place on the tables of the most food-conscious British or artfully arrayed on dishes at that temple of cuisine the Auberge des Quatre-Saisons, in Great Milton between Oxford and London.
People with their own gardens, who have been nipping the tops of the shrubby broad bean plants since early spring to promote pod production and discourage aphids, can eat the freshest, youngest beans, pod and all, by simply boiling them in salted water for a few minutes until tender.
Gardeners and their friends are probably also the only people lucky enough to get broad beans that have not already developed tough skins around them. That saves them the trouble of skinning each bean.
Real broad bean fanatics, such as Richard Olney, the American author of Simple French Food, distinguish four separate stages of broad bean development, each one dictating a different culinary approach. Stage one, according to Olney, arrives when the peach-fuzzed pods are only 6 or 7 inches long and the skins don’t have to be removed. At stage two, the pods have lengthened and flattened and swollen around the beans. The skins are green but tough and have to be popped off after the briefest blanching. Then, the tender naked beans take only a couple of minutes to cook. Olney throws in a sprig of savory, the classic French accompaniment for broad beans. He, like most of us, has not been persuaded by Elizabeth David that savory spoils the flavor of the beans with its own peppery bitterness.
Stages three and four involve favas too mature to bother with. Unless you grow favas yourself, you will probably never see these bigger, mealier beans, which are normally dried.