Monday, October 29, 2012

Fava Beans: Ancient Nutrition for Modern Times

A staple of Sicilian cooking, the humble fava bean has a colorful and controversial history dating back to the time of the Egyptian pharos and is mentioned in numerous Greek and Roman texts of antiquity.  Thought to have been brought to the Italian peninsula from the near east, fava beans are known as broad beans or horse beans in Anglo-speaking countries. Exceptionally nutritious, fava beans contain iron and essential minerals.  In addition, the presence of levo-dopa in fava beans is beneficial to brain function and in Italy is thought to help fight fatigue.
In his seminal book published in 1891, “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well,” famous Italian writer and food historian, Pellegrino Artusi, speaks at length about the fava bean.  Artusi tells us that fava beans were once used to commemorate the dead, a custom rooted in antiquity:

Fava blossoms from my garden.
fava beans were used as offerings to the Fates, Pluto and Persephone, and were well known for their use in ceremonial and superstitious rites. The ancient Egyptians abstained from eating them, and would neither plant nor touch them with their hand, and their priests would not even fix their gaze on these legumes for fear of conjuring up something vile.  Fava, especially the black variety, were considered funerary offerings, believed to contain the souls of the departed, and shaped like the doors of hell. 
 In the Lemural festivals, ancient Romans spat fava beans [in the house] while at the same time beating a copper vase, in order drive out any malevolent ancestral spirits and deities of the Underworld.
Festus [a roman provincial governor AD 59-62] tells us there's an unholy symbol hidden in the blossom of the fava bean, and the custom of making offerings of fava beans to the dead is one of the reasons, supposedly, that led Pythagoras to order his followers to avoid them. Another was to keep them from becoming entangled in affairs of state, since fava beans were used to cast ballots in elections.”

Ancient customs notwithstanding, fava beans are delicious and are used both fresh and dried in Sicilian cooking withpasta, or plain.  Plain fava are twice shelled (the outer skins and the skins of the individual beans removed), boiled about 10 to 15 minutes, plunged in cold water, and drained. They are seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and minced fresh mint to taste and served with an assortment of sheep cheeses, olives and crusty bread for a midmorning snack or appetizer.  

Join me next time as we explore delicious ways to incorporate fava beans in pasta dishes.  Until then…

Ciao a presto!  

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