The Humble Broad Bean's Surprisingly Dark Past
It's time to sow early broad beans if you haven't yet got round to it. This year mine are coming on nicely (fingers crossed) in the potting shed, in stark contrast to last when mice feasted on every seed I lovingly planted outdoors in the December snow!
I knew broad beans were a staple of the medieval English diet but recently stumbled across a curious account of their ominous associations in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures.
Vicia faba, the broad or fava bean, is a staple whose origins stretch back for millennia. Easy to grow and a rich source of protein, it at first seems strange that it was feared and shunned by many in the classical world.
In ancient Egypt broad beans were considered so unclean priests would not look at them, far less eat them, although the crop was cultivated as cheap foodstuff for slaves. Diogenes Laertius reported that Roman priests of Jupiter were forbidden even to mention the plant's name, so strong was its association with death and decay. Early Roman Christians cooked biscuits from broad bean flour mixed with sage and almond to mark the Day of the Dead on 2 November - a custom that continues to this day in Italy and might be the origin of the word 'beanfeast'.
The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras condemned the eating of any type of legume. According to Pliny (who admittedly treated the idea with scorn), Pythagoreans believed broad bean plants contained the souls of the dead, the black-spotted flowers and hollow stems providing ladders between earth and Hades.
Odd as this all seems, there was some method in the madness, for Mediterranean peoples are susceptible to the otherwise rare hereditary blood disorder, favism
(haemolytic anaemia) and sufferers can die as a result of eating broad beans or merely of inhaling pollen from the plant's flowers. Even today, favism proves fatal in one in twelve of those affected.
This susceptibility is almost unknown among Northern Europeans and by the 17th century the humble broad bean was considered a bringer of good luck in England - finding the dried bean in your slice of Twelfth Night cake conferred temporary kingship for the evening!
Today the broad bean is not only one of the first delicacies of the British summer, but in its dried form is widespread throughout the cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt ful madames (literally 'buried beans') is the national dish and ta'amia is a delectable broad bean falafel considered superior to the chickpea version favoured further north. Ground into a flour known as shiro, the fava also plays a central role in Ethiopian cooking.
Love them or hate them, there's rarely been a vegetable as contentious as our humble and deceptively innocuous broad bean.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018