A round man sat down at the table adjacent to us. His elastic-waist pants gripped the full circumference of his belly, making his rotundity all the more prominent. Like the dome of the Pantheon, his girth appeared to be geometrically equal to his height.
Three large fava bean pods were in his pudgy left hand as the right one was busily popping shelled beans into his mouth. More pods protruded from his pocket. Susie and I began to wonder about him. Where did he live? What did he do? Why was he eating raw fava beans right out of the pod? And why were they stuffed in his pockets?
Our ruminations were interrupted by a loud voice. “Buon giorno senatore!” It was Mauro, our favorite waiter, greeting the object of our fascination. Senator? It was true that we were in Rome and that the Italian Senate was a few blocks away, but it seemed odd that a senator would walk around with bean pods bulging from his pockets. Our dignitary barely stopped tearing apart the pods to acknowledge Mauro’s salutation. He’d found his treasure at the front door of the trattoria, where a large basket overflowed with fava beans. Little else seemed to matter.
More senators began to fill the other spots at the table. A large plate of fava beans appeared at its center. Manicured hands with gold-watch wrists grabbed frenetically at the foot-long pods. Ringed fingers tore at the rubbery packets to fish out the chartreuse beans. The senators were arguing with flying arms, united only by their hunger for the shrinking pile of favas. Other courses followed. Pasta, meat, and cooked vegetables arrived and were eaten, but the conversation became more subdued and passions had abated. Espresso finished off the meal and the senators left in a subdued pack. As they left, Papà, the patriarch of the trattoria, was doling out fava beans like a Las Vegas blackjack dealer dealing a hand of cards. The senators stuffed them in their pockets, presumably for a late-afternoon snack.
So began a particular springtime in Italy. Our trip, filled with exhausting but disparate experiences, came to be united by this little legume. Our senator was the first of many encounters.
“Papà! Yeeeeeeeee!” A screeching, hyperactive six-year-old boy ran through the dining room wearing a Teletubby costume. We were at an agritourismo in Umbria a few hours’ drive and a few days’ time from our senators. The Teletubby’s single antenna bounced about as he burned his frenzied energy like a Roman candle gone awry.
“Michelangelo! Be careful,” warned Daniele, his father and the proprietor of the establishment. The admonition was halfhearted and of little use. Michelangelo continued to rip through the dining room, circling each table several times until he became dizzy.
His mom ran out to attempt to do what his father clearly could not. “Michelangelo, what do you say to our guests when you approach their table?” asked Mamma in her effort to calm him. Antenna still swinging wildly from ear to ear, the boy cupped his hands as if to tell his mom a secret. As she gently leaned down to receive the message, Michelangelo launched a direct aural assault. “NON RICORDO!” he screamed. “I DON’T REMEMBER!”
Not able to help ourselves, Susie and I laughed aloud at Michelangelo’s antics. This encouragement helped ignite the second stage of his rocket as he screeched his way around the dining room for another orbit. At the point of reentry into the kitchen the bright red Teletubby nearly knocked Papà over as he zoomed past him. It was a good thing he didn’t, for Papà had reemerged with a mountain of fava beans on large hand-painted platters.
After the wake of Michelangelo subsided, each table received a share of the green lode. The favas were accompanied with a small bowl of sea salt. The Italians in the room ripped into their stash. As they opened each pod and extracted the beans, they dipped them gently into the salt. Doing the same, we began to understand the simple and utterly satisfying pleasure of the fava bean.
“Ah, you know what to do with the fava bean!” Daniele seemed pleased that we were already dipping our beans in the bowls when he returned with our wine. The salt added another dimension to the taste of the bean, bringing out its sweetness and complex, nutty flavor.
With its pale skin encasing a bright green bean, the fava is like no other legume. When young and tender, the skin adds a pleasant, astringent component to the sweet yet bland interior. When the bean matures further, the skin turns tough and overbearing and must be removed before eating. Since each pod is different, the quest is to find the perfect bean at just the right stage of maturity. Young fava beans are enjoyed best when eaten raw. Though quite delicious when cooked, they are simply irresistible a crudo. Like potato chips, they are impossible to stop eating once you’ve started. Yet, unlike the greasy spuds, they settle nicely in the stomach, causing no regrets or guilt after indulging.
A week later we were in Le Marche at the ancient villa of a winery. We were seated around a large round table, having breakfast with a group of Italian food and wine journalists. Aldo, a prominent Italian food historian and septuagenarian had taken an interest in educating us about the local food customs. “This was the typical breakfast of the contadini for centuries,” he said. On the table were large platters of the local salami, bread, and small rounds of pecorino cheese. Red wine was poured.
While we were all enjoying the feast, two large wicker baskets filled to the brim with fava beans arrived at the table. Our Italian colleagues instantly began to grab at the baskets. While at first their manners and demeanor had matched the elegance of the setting, all changed with the arrival of the monster pods. Now the Italians were gesturing, laughing, and grinning from ear to ear.
“You must eat the fava with a slice of pecorino. They are made for each other.” Aldo had come back over to our side of the table to explain the proper procedure for eating favas. He was right. The combination was perfection. The tangy, salty sheep’s milk cheese exquisitely complemented the fava’s sweet and puckery character. Forgetting about the bread and meat, we grabbed at the favas and paired each bean with a slice of the white cheese. After assembly, we popped the packets into our mouth.
Getting up from the table, we were satisfied. The few swallows of wine added a glow to the late morning. The simple meal had warmed the belly and the heart. Suddenly, plastic bags appeared from nowhere. The frenzy was reignited. Determined to empty both baskets, the journalists quickly filled the bags and their pockets with as many fava beans as they could hold. With cherubic smiles, we all piled into a van for a tour of the surrounding vineyards.
On our ride through the hills of Le Marche I could not help thinking of my good fortune. I listened to the Italian chitchat in the van, enjoying the musicality more than the words themselves. I thought back several weeks to our trip’s beginning and smiled at the image of the senator and his fava beans. His appearance had foretold this journey’s enchantment. He had become our prophet.
We later learned that the fava is grown almost everywhere in Italy. It is a staple food, particularly so for the people of the South. Because it is so nourishing it is nicknamed “the meat of the poor.” Southern Italian cooking is particularly rich in fava bean recipes. The beans are eaten fresh in the spring and dried for use the rest of the year. Like with many foods in Italy, sustenance has bred passion. Even today’s prosperous Italians crave favas, even though they no longer rely upon them for survival.
As a young boy, Mexican jumping beans and Jack’s magic bean stalk fascinated me. Now I have a new magical bean to add to my collection. The fava bean creates an excitement in my Italian friends that I cannot explain. Maybe it is its nutritional value, or the myriad recipes that have evolved out of necessity. Maybe thousands of years of eating them have created some sort of ingrained craving. Or perhaps, regardless of their age, there is merely a bit of little Michelangelo in each of them. Maybe it's in us all—it just takes a few fava beans to bring it forth.
Fava Beans and Artichokes
Fave e Carciofi in Umido
Though a perfect match for any pork dish, these vegetables are delicious on their own, as a separate course. Here, the fava beans are cooked but are no less magical. If you are lucky enough to have wild fennel growing in your area you should use it in this dish. If not, use cultivated fennel. In either case, use only its green tender fronds.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped onions
2 ½ pounds fava beans, shelled
½ cup dry white wine
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 tablespoons minced fennel fronds
Salt to taste
Cut the lemon in half and squeeze its juice into a large bowl. Fill the bowl about two-thirds full with water.
Remove the dark green leaves from the artichoke by snapping them downward toward the stem while placing your thumb at the base of the leaf. This will allow you to keep the lower part of the leaf, which contains its edible part. Occasionally dunk the artichoke in the acidulated water to prevent it from turning brown. Continue to remove the leaves until you reach the core, where at least the top half of the leaves are very pale in color. Place the artichoke on its side and cut it crosswise about halfway down. With a paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove any green color remaining on the artichoke. Dip the artichoke in the lemon water and cut it lengthwise into quarters. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the tough inner leaves, particularly the purple ones, and remove the fuzzy choke. The quartered pale green heart will remain. Slice the hearts lengthwise into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Put the slices in the acidulated water.
Shell the fava beans, discarding the pods. If the fava beans have thick white outer membranes, remove them from the beans. If the membranes are thin and translucent you can leave them on the beans. Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan or skillet. Add the onions and sauté them over medium heat until golden.
Meanwhile drain the artichokes in a colandar and rinse them. Add the artichokes and fava beans to the pan. Stir the vegetables to coat them evenly with the oil. Sauté them for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the white wine, red pepper flakes, and fennel fronds. Cook for 5 minutes to evaporate the alcohol from the wine. Add a large pinch of salt and cover the pan. Cook covered for about 15 minutes or until the artichokes and fava beans are very tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.