December 2009 - January 2010

The Nation Reviewed

A fava fresca!

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Early in October the broad beans began to appear, but were still so small that it was mere ritual to nip one or two off and eat them whole. The pods, about 6 centimetres long, are at first difficult to see. They rise close to the hollow, square-ribbed stem which is at least 1 metre in height before the pretty flowers – white with a black spot on each petal – begin to give way to the beans themselves. Spotting the first bean is always thrilling, but it would be stupid to nip off more than a very few. Inside them, the seeds (what we call the beans) are barely formed, tiny moist attachments.

Even when, by mid October, the pods have gained in size – and the stalks are up to a metre-and-a-half tall – they hide or disguise themselves well (runner beans and peas play similar tricks but vicia faba wins hands down at hide-and-seek) and I have never, thinking I had found the sum of a certain perfect size, picked a bowlful without finding later that pods had been left. This always makes me smile and doff my hat to the seeming cunning of the plant. It is worth looking from below and above and from all compass points – even worth turning away and then turning back. Sometimes, I walk past the bean patches and glance at them, feigning only a passing interest, and yet another pod will be seen and pounced on. By mid October the crop had begun in earnest and as I write, a little over a month after the first beans appeared, it is almost finished. Its quickly passing abundance is a seasonal joy.

Unlike many other vegetables and fruits, where produce does not deteriorate by being left on the plant or tree, broad beans must be picked as they reach their prime, which is to say not too young and not too old. When picked too young, but after the time when the whole pod might be cooked, their bounty is wasted. Too old, they deserve the opinion of those who don’t like them. Too old is the state you find them in most commercial outlets, and the small offering in my local greengrocer’s space is often covered in rust (one of broad beans’ few possible problems). As a domestic grower, I know that rust is unsightly, but that it rarely affects the edible beans in the pod; surely a shopper would not choose to buy them, though? These blotched pods need a sign to prove that the shopkeeper knows what he buys and then sells. My crop had shown healthy resistance to all attacks and disease this year, and it is possible that the addition of ash, sieved from the combustion heater to the soil, gave them a boost of confidence.

Shelling broad beans is a lovely, measured and usefully reflective labour. I don’t mean that by this activity you become a philosopher in the kitchen but that, as each pod is twisted open along the spaces between the beans (have you noticed that the edge of the broken pod blackens with exposure to the air?), as you choose the next pod to shell, you are involved in what Wendell Berry, Kentucky poet, writer, teacher and farmer, calls the “extensive pleasure” of his dictum that “eating is an agricultural act.” You have planted, nurtured, mulched, watered, tied them loosely to stakes to protect them from winds, waited, nibbled, waited again, and now – having begun to pick every other morning – bowl after bowl is brought into the kitchen; you shell and cook and give them away to neighbours and friends, but also, when the broad beans are in full flush, you freeze them in lots of two to three serves for fresh pasta or for smashing with preserved lemon and savoury later in the year.

Pods that are very large and filled with beans so large that they swell the pod itself and push against the inside until the entire pod is hard, have been left far too long. The beans become woody. The perfect culinary broad bean is one whose pod is still soft to touch. The beans inside have not filled the furry, cushioned interior but they are large enough, perhaps not much over one centimetre in length, to be counted as perfect. The outer skin of each one will still be a bright, moist green but you know that in a day or two it would begin to grey. Italians serve young, moist beans raw with pecorino (salty and sharp) as an appetiser, and so should we. Chefs in restaurants where apprentices are many use beans far larger than this, blanching them and removing the skin. The interior, which often splits into halves is an iridescent green and proves irresistible to diners who see that finicky work has been done on their purse’s behalf.

This practice robs the broad bean of its quiddity, its essential, unique flavour, which is just slightly mineral. A broad bean that needs to be twice peeled is surely one which was picked too late. A vital gastronomic culture is one in which the cook and the gardener aim for the same fruit or vegetable for the same reason, and produce is picked at the right time. Wendell Berry also wrote that “Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.”

In 1978, Norman Lewis published his captivating memoir Naples ’44 (“One goes on reading page after page as if eating cherries,” wrote Luigi Barzini in the New York Review of Books). It reads as a diary of the year he served in Naples as a British Army Field Security Service officer, as linguist and translator.

By 28 February 1944, he had been in Naples six months and winter was drawing to a close. “The onset of the melancholy of spring is announced by the seller of broad beans, who passes under our windows, always at dusk, with the saddest of cries: ‘A fava fresca!

I had not quite decided whether the sadness of the cry was connected to the caller’s inflections and tone or to the broad beans – until the year progressed to May and summer “was announced by the cry of the seller of venetian blinds – sad to the point of anguish in our narrow street – s’e ’nfucato ’sole (the sun’s turned fiery)”.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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