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FAVA BEANS

On the first of May, a national holiday, it is a tradition for Roman families to take a trip to the countryside and eat fresh fava beans with pecorino cheese. They remove the beans from the smaller bright green pods, shell them, take a little bit of pecorino, eat them together. A perfect gastronomic marriage you must try to understand. Fava bean (vicia faba), aka broad bean, is a variety of bean native to the Mediterranean coasts; it is among the most ancient plants in cultivation and one of the easiest to grow. Along with lentils, peas, and chickpeas, favas have been a staple of the Mediterranean diet since 3000 BC, and they were the only beans known in Europe until the 1500s.

Fava bean plants don't like heat but they can survive restricted water supplies and reduced light exposure; they can withstand rough climates; they can be grown in soils with high salinity as well as in clay soil, true survivors. They are often grown as a cover crop or manure crop to prevent erosion, to add nutrients, organic matter and to renovate nitrogen in the soil.

Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (c. 580 BC - c. 500 BC) - famous for the theorem that states that in any given right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the other two sides - hated fava beans with a passion. His students were not allowed to eat them, touch them or even name them.

Maybe Pythagoras, or someone in his family, was allergic to fava beans: certain substances found in them can cause susceptible individuals to develop jaundice and anemia. Death follows for almost 10 percent of those who suffer this reaction. It is a genetic disorder known as "favism", present in more than 400 million people worldwide. Mediterranean and South Asian people are affected the most. A strange side effect of this disease is that it grants protection against the most deadly form of malaria. A similar relationship exists between malaria and sickle-cell disease also common in Italy, a place plagued by malaria throughout the past centuries. As recently as 1943, 100,000 cases of malaria were reported in one year on the island of Sardinia alone. But, fava beans' benefits far outweigh their shortcomings.

Like modern Romans, Ancient Romans loved fava beans and they understood their properties. Not only they are easy to grow, fava beans contain carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein, folate, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, calcium, biotin, vitamin B3, vitamin B5, and vitamin C; they are rich in tyramine, in L-dopa (used medically in the treatment of Parkinson's disease and hypertension), and tannins. They help the circulatory system, the digestive system, stomach and spleen. Ancient Roman scientist, historian and author Pliny the Elder claimed fava beans also acted as a laxative.

Fava beans can be eaten raw, boiled, fried, baked, they can be an entrée, a side dish, a fresh or a crunchy snack. Dry them and they can last a year. As a treat, the early, tender leaves are sold as gourmet greens and make an excellent addition to salads.