Bringing Back Broad Beans

These large legumes had broad appeal in the past, and they’re once again becoming fava-rites among cool-climate gardeners.

Photo by Flickr/Stefano Lubiana

The popularity of the fava bean has undergone a peculiar evolution in the U.S. In the colonial period, it was a common feature of upper-class kitchen gardens, and remained so into the 1840s, yet it was gradually replaced by the lima bean. More than anything, the development of the bush lima and its preference for hot summers sealed the fate of the fava. But the decline also reflected a larger shift from English cookery to a more American taste.

The oldest known depiction of a fava bean appears in the great codex of Dioskorides, written circa 500 A.D. The beans mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman writings are also favas, the wild bean known in the region at that time. In fact, fava beans have been under cultivation for such a long time that the wild ancestor is now extinct. There are some undomesticated beans closely related to the wild ancestor, but they’re not the favas from which modern cultivars evolved.

Culinary varieties are divided into three types: Vicia faba var. minor, which are small, round-seeded, resemble lentils, and are often referred to as “field beans;” V. faba var. equina, which are mid-sized and rather oblong beans often resembling peas; and V. faba var. major, which are large, flat-seeded, and most common today. All of these varieties will cross with one another, thus giving rise to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of intermediate forms. Historically, V. faba var. minor and V. faba var. equina were used both green and dry by Mediterranean cultures; V. faba var. major originated in the Iberian Peninsula, probably around 800 A.D. The equina favas were used as dry beans for winter cooking in the Celtic regions of Britain and northwest France, most often ground into flour for hearth breads or broken up into grits for porridges.

Young beans can be cooked in the pod like edamame, puréed, and added to pasta or falafel for a pop of color and flavor; meanwhile, the young leaves and growing tips of the plants can be added to any dish where you’d use other garden greens. Photo by Getty Images/igaguri_1

Fava beans of many types found favor in the colonial United States. Amelia Simmons discusses two popular varieties of fava beans, the ‘Windsor’ bean and the horse bean, in her 1796 book, American Cookery. The first was firmly associated with genteel, English cookery, while the latter was almost exclusively a working-class vegetable. The horse bean has been rehabilitated recently and is now sold dry as a “baby fava.”



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