Bringing Back Broad Beans

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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.”

Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon offered 14 fava bean cultivars in 1806, which may be seen as an attempt to cater to the demands of his wealthy customers. The ‘Broad Spanish’ in his catalog may be the ‘Agua Dulce’ described in “Favas to Try,” below. Of all the favas, it does the best for me. However, many of the heirloom varieties are rare today, and this hampers me greatly in recommending heirloom varieties. My overall favorite, ‘Early Mazagan,’ was one of the most popular varieties in the colonial period because it came into season before the plants were destroyed by summer heat. Unfortunately, it’s only available from a few growers in England.

Fava Cultivation

Favas demand a long, cool growing season, and should be planted outside as early as possible in spring, at the same time as peas or potatoes. Or, start the seedlings indoors in pots and transplant them to the garden as soon as the weather is mild. Young fava plants will withstand hard frosts, and some varieties are hardy to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. In many places, they can be overwintered by simply covering the plants with straw. The tops may die back, but the roots will sprout again in spring. Because favas thrive in cool, damp weather — one reason why they do so well in England — it’s far better to plant them too early than too late. Hot weather not only causes the flowers to drop, but also heralds black aphids, which attack favas ruthlessly. Favas can be planted as a fall crop in places with mild winters, but they’re day-length sensitive and will take much longer to reach maturity than if they were planted in spring.

Fava flowers are surprisingly showy; most are white, although there are red-flowered cultivars. Photo by Getty Images/photohampster

Black aphids will sap the plants of their strength and, if allowed to go unchecked, will severely damage the crop. They can be controlled with liberal applications of insecticidal soap at regular intervals. Sifted wood ash also works, especially if applied before a gentle rain. The alkaloids in the ashes will kill soft-bodied insects without damaging the plants. But black aphids aren’t the only problem; slugs present a far greater threat to favas in early spring than frost, which the cold-hardy plants will shrug off without any harm done. Slugs will be attracted to the young bean plants and can strip them to the ground in the course of a night. Slugs will even climb mature plants to eat the flowers. Scatter diatomaceous earth copiously around the base of the plants to protect them from slugs’ depredations.

Once the plants begin setting pods, pinch off the edible tops to direct energy into seed development. The young pods may be harvested like string beans, or, when more mature, the shelly beans may be harvested and cooked like limas. Always remove the outer skin from the beans before serving.

Dried fava beans can be soaked and cooked in stews and soups, or puréed into pâté, and even added to dips and spreads. Photo by Adobe Stock/fortton

After harvest, you can throw the plants into a heap to dry. They’ll turn black and brittle, and will make excellent mulch for the garden. Set aside at least 10 plants for seed-saving purposes. When the plants begin to die, harvest and dry the pods in an airy room away from direct sunlight. When the pods are brittle and the seeds fall out easily, pick out only the most perfect and best-colored seeds, and pack them into airtight containers.

Fava beans are self-pollinating, but bees will cause considerable crossing, especially bumblebees, which are particularly attracted to the flowers. Because favas bloom so early in the season, they’re even more prone to crossing than many other common vegetables. The suggested isolation distance is a mile, which means that varieties planted any closer must be caged to preserve seed purity. Essentially, it’s safer to grow one variety at a time if you plan to save the seed, which is good for five years; you can maintain several varieties by rotating them annually.

Favas to Try

Photo by Adobe Stock/Brent Hofacker

‘Agua Dulce’ (Vicia faba var. major)

This cultivar originated in Spain as a selection of baba de Sevilla, which can be traced back to the late Middle Ages. It was introduced commercially in the middle of the 19th century, but wasn’t grown in the U.S. until quite recently. However, ‘Agua Dulce’ was raised in Mexico since the period of Spanish settlement, and therefore has many close relatives in the heirloom Mexican cultivars that evolved in the Southwest. Many of those cultivars are available from Native Seeds/SEARCH [].

The plant is about 3-1/2 feet tall, with huge, broad pods ranging in length from 6 to 7 inches. There are usually four or five seeds per pod. The dry seed is flat and rather honey-colored, and when boiled and puréed, pairs well with puréed chickpeas. The plants aren’t highly productive, but a large plot of perhaps 200 plants would amply supply a household. This variety always outproduces the others in my garden, all things being equal. I can only assume that this has something to do with the fact that I’m on the same latitude as Spain and that the sunlight in my garden reminds it of home.

‘Martoc’ (Vicia faba var. major)

To the casual eye, this fava appears identical to the horse bean. If I accidentally mix the seeds, I can’t tell one from the other. However, this is a truly medieval bean, and in the Middle Ages, it was common for farmers to grow all their favas together in very small plots. Each field developed its own peculiar mix of varieties, and this resulted in beans being identified not by uniformity, but by their field or place of origin. The ‘Martoc’ is presumed to be one of England’s oldest strains, and is probably the result of medieval cross-breeding. It was salvaged from oblivion by the Henry Doubleday Research Association, having been preserved for many years in the garden of an English bishop. It has two seeds per pod, and because the dry beans are rather flat, there’s consensus that this variety is a major, but a very primitive one.

For nuttiness and texture, ‘Martoc’ is unsurpassed, and it offers a range of culinary possibilities, especially when cooked with whole grains (such as spelt), mixed with oats, or even broken into bits and used like nuts in stuffings or puddings.

The dry beans must be blanched before cooking. Place the beans in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes, and then drain. Remove the outer skin of each bean, and then simmer the beans again in water or meat stock for about 30 minutes, or until tender.

Horse Bean or English Bean (Vicia faba var. equina)

This heirloom bean is easy to cultivate, but each plant only produces 8 to 12 seeds, so it’s best raised in a small field. Because the plants don’t branch, and grow about 32 inches tall, they can be planted close together. The pods are 21/4 inches long and contain three small, round, brown seeds. I grow this fava mostly as a dry bean to grind for flour. But, because it’s an heirloom variety readily available and resembles the sort of beans raised in Roman times, I take a certain degree of pleasure in using it to create fanciful antique dishes. The shelly bean is mealy, and therefore excellent for bean dips. Most importantly, heirloom favas, including this one, are extremely rich in basic proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamins. For this reason, vegetarian cookery has taken a new look at the fava bean and its culinary possibilities.

When planted in early April, the plants come to pod in early June, but quickly succumb to the heat.

‘Windsor Broad Bean’ (Vicia faba var. major)

This bean is so similar in appearance to ‘Agua Dulce’ that it’s redundant to grow both at once. In northerly regions of the U.S., where summers are cool and short, ‘Windsor Long Pod’ is the strain of ‘Windsor’ bean to choose, but for the heirloom enthusiast in warmer areas, ‘Windsor Broad Bean’ (or ‘White Windsor’) is the bean of colonial America.

The ‘Windsor Broad Bean’ is actually of Spanish origin, and entered England from Portugal in the 1300s. Its oldest name was ‘Small Spanish,’ and, in fact, the ‘New Long Pod,’ as it was later known, wasn’t announced until 1837, when London seedsmen Field and Childs brought it to market.

True ‘Windsor Broad Bean’ plants produce only two greenish-white beans per pod. By contrast, ‘Windsor Long Pod’ produces 4 to 6 beans. The seeds lose their vitality after three years.

Interestingly, beans that weren’t large and white, despite growing on ‘Windsor’ plants, were often sold under different names, including green seeds as ‘Toker’ and small seeds as ‘Mumford.’  The practice has given rise to the false impression that these were distinct cultivars. There are probably several hundred popular names for various types and conditions of ‘Windsor’ beans, but they’re all the same bean with a flavor very close to a butternut squash.

William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, a board member of GMO Free Pennsylvania and the Experimental Farm Network, and a prolific author. This article is excerpted with permission from Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Henry Holt & Co.), available in the Mother Earth Gardener store.

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