Last fall, we did a little communal gardening. Our friends have a fantastic set of raised beds they weren’t planning to plant with winter crops. We offered to help them clear the beds and plant them with fava beans and a few other cold weather lovers for a share of the bounty. Spring arrived, and most of the crops sprouted, grew, and bolted before our friends mentioned they were ready for pickin’ but not the favas. Fava beans filled the three beds in which we’d planted them with beautiful green splendor up until last weekend.
Last weekend was The Big Harvest. We’d picked a couple of smaller baskets two weeks ago. Those became some mighty tasty falafel sandwiches and two packs of frozen beans for winter enjoyment. Last weekend, however, we picked two huge baskets of beans, a nice share of still tender tops, and cleared the beds to make way for our friends’ summer plantings.
Since about 11,000 years ago, humans have been enjoying favas. They’re one of humanity’s oldest cultivated crops, with archeological evidence of their cultivation dating back to 9000 BCE in Northwest Syria. In their homelands, they’re still far more common than they are in the grocery store in my corner of the world. In fact, until green beans and their South American cousins crossed the Atlantic, favas were The Beans of Europe, Asia, Africa, and pretty much the rest of the world. They’ve sustained and nourished whole villages, been used as tribute and in barter, been embraced and eschewed, and have gone under a number of aliases. Broad beans, fave dei morti or beans of the dead, horse beans, English beans, Winsor beans, tic beans, bell beans, and field beans are all the humble Fava in disguise.
Myths and legends abound, attesting to the magical and sometimes Divine powers of the Fava. They were forbidden foods for ancient Egyptian priests, possibly because of their association with death and the Spirits of the dead. Through much of ancient Europe, the fava bean was connected with both death and poverty. The poverty part is easy to understand; fava beans have a lot of protein, folate, and minerals (copper, manganese, zinc, phosphorous, potassium, iron, calcium) and they’ll grow in a myraid of conditions including mild winter cold weather and in salty soils, making them a nutritious powerhouse for those with little money and resources.
The death part…that’s possibly based on a historical understanding of how the soul moves out of the body in death. Common knowledge through Medieval Europe and Northern Africa held that the soul departed the body on the breath, also called Wind, and could enter a body through the same mechanism. Fava beans may well have been connected with the dead because they can cause gasiness in some people. It’s also possible that they were connected with death for a far more concrete reason; some people are severely allergic to fava beans. The condition is called favism. Folks who’ve inherited favism (aka G6DP deficiency) become anemic sometimes to the the point of death after eating fava beans. Fava beans cause their bodies to begin destroying their red blood cells rather than building them as one would expect given the nutritional content of the fava. Interestingly, folk with this condition are also less susceptible to malaria and the highest numbers of people with favism are generally from areas plagued by malaria.
Despite their associations with death, favas have been credited with luck and abundance, too. In Sicily, they’re connected with Saint Joseph’s Day because they’re credited with having helped sustain the area during at least one spring famine there centuries ago. In Hoo-doo, they’re used for wish-granting. Mardi-gras King Cakes originally housed a dried fava bean, the finder of which became King for a day. The Greeks used Fava beans as their voting token. Jack’s father may have been upset with him for trading their dairy cow for a handful of magic beans, but I wonder if maybe it was more a lucky trade. Fava beans grow like crocuses, popping up amidst the snow and ice and growing even when other cold-hardy crops like the brassicia family daren’t show their faces. You can eat them when they’re young, pod and all, or older and yet green, or older still and dried. The tops are terrific in salads, and they’re an excellent green mulch for the garden.
As my boy and I worked our way through the fava bed last friday morning, I could totally see how Jack must have felt when his favas grew. It truly is magical how their stalks look so thick and heavy yet so tall, like they could actually reach the sky. Their stems are hollow and much lighter than they look. From a shamanic perspective, those hollow stems are akin to the paths the Medicine Woman walks when she carries home good medicine to her people. Come to think of it, when I journey to the Upper world, one of the paths I take looks just like a giant Fava stalk.
While I worked with my harvest, I was completely in this world. Fava medicine doesn’t come easily. You’ve gotta work for it. You’ve gotta be grounded and present if you want to get it done within the day.
First, you break open the pods to get at the beans and sort them by size and color. That in itself took me several hours. Next, you remove the outer skin from the larger beans. That outer skin is bitter and kind of tough once the beans get large. When they’re smaller than about the size of a nickel and quite green, the outer skin’s still tender and sweet. Sorting well makes a big difference in the final flavor and texture of your dish. It also makes the rest of the work a whole lot easier. If you pay attention as you pick up the pods, you get a feel for the size of the beans inside, making sorting a lot easier.
Once the beans are all podded and sorted, it’s time to remove those skins. You can peel them or parboil them. Peeling takes a lot longer, but the beans will be completely raw when you’re done. If you want a satisfying crunch in your finished dish, like I did for the Quick and Easy Thai Noodles my man cooked this morning, it’s worth the time it takes to peel them. For falafel and similar treats or for the freezer, par boiling is the way to go. I opted to par boil most of my larger ones and peel the smaller ones.
Once you’ve parboiled the fava beans for a minute or two, cool them quickly so they stop cooking or you’ll have mushy favas in the end. I use a sink full of cold water for the first batch, then cool the water back down with ample amounts of ice for each subsequent batch. I reserve the pot liquor from parboiling when I’m done as the beginning of a sweet, fresh fava soup stock.
After your favas have cooled, they’ll slip out of their skins easily. I set the skins aside as I work, then dump them into the pot with the fava pot liquor and bring them to a simmer for about thirty minutes or so, strain out the skins, and then reduce the remaining stock to about two thirds its original volume or until I like the intensity of the flavor. Most often, I can it just as it is, without adding any further flavors to the mix, but from there you could add leeks, parsley, rosemary, thyme, carrots, or your other favorite stock veggies for a rich, flavorful soup base.
Like I said, Fava Medicine doesn’t come easily. It’s a lot of work getting to the edible heart of the bean, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. They’re a cross between snap peas and dried white beans like Mayo cabos or maybe cannelloni’s. They’re delicate, more so than they look, and sweet, fresh, pale green-yellowish in flavor, comforting and hopeful. Fava bean medicine, like the plant, is about endurance and the sweet taste of hope rewarded.
The last bed we planted has yet to be picked. We’re letting them grow on to become dried beans and seeds. Our friends said they’d split the seeds with us when they’re ready, too. Hopefully, next year at this time we’ll be harvesting favas from my own little garden. That would be truly magical, indeed.