Faba or fava: that is the question

Fabaceae or leguminosae are enormously widespread, stretching to the remotest corners of every continent, even Greenland. The word fabaceae derives from the Latin faba, meaning ‘bean’, which ranks among the oldest cultivated legumes.

The botanical name of the broad bean is Vicia faba, of which different varieties can be identified on the basis of the size of their seeds. One particularity of the plant lies in its rootstock, whose surface is covered in a number of chunky nodules, which contain specific nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Through a chain of chemical reactions, these bacteria transform nitrogen molecules into ammonia, an element that is essential for vegetable life. Thanks to this process, the plant is better able to assimilate nitrogen. 

Another unique thing about the broad bean is the color of its flowers, a color extremely rare among vegetables. The corolla’s petals are white, sometimes violet, with distinctive dark patches too. And those dark patches only stoked the superstition of the ancient Greeks, who shrouded the bean flowers in a cloak of mystery: these black spots sketch out the outline of the Greek Tau, the first letter in the word Thanatos, meaning Death. The Greeks also believed that the bean was a means of communicating with the underworld, seeing the smooth, knotless stem as an easy passage for souls rising from Hades. 

It was around 530 BCE, with the foundation of the school of Pythagoras, that the bean definitively conquered the tables of the time. The Pythagoreans presented themselves as a religio-mystical yet scientific sect that based its belief system on the observation of various doctrines and taboos. One of these issued the dictum: “Abstain from beans”. Any student of philosophy knows that the Pythagoreans were convinced vegetarians, believing as they did in metempsychosis, the idea that the souls of dead humans live on in the bodies of animals: thus, to eat any creature means to eat a human being. Fine, but why did the Pythagoreans shun beans as well as meat?

Well, it could be that there were practical as well as symbolic reasons behind this ban. The most probable theory, as maintained by Gerald Hart, is that Pythagoras had witnessed first hand the effects of fabism, a genetic illness that was widespread in Greece and southern Italy. Scientifically, it is defined as “deficiency of di glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase”. The hereditary lack of this enzyme causes a sudden destruction of red blood cells, which in extreme cases can lead to death.

The ancient Egyptian priesthood also considered beans to be something impure. Rather than eating them, they used them as a means of communicating with the gods, via a kind of sortilege. This practice enjoyed a long life in the Mediterranean basin, where assemblies would customarily vote with black and white beans. Even today, there is a Tuscan saying: “mettere alle fave”, which translates as “to put something to the beans”. Literally, it means to vote on a topic or a decision.

Never mind the myths and beliefs: beans have always played a crucial role in the history of human nourishment, providing the main protein base for entire communities. This is especially true of central and southern Italy, where beans have left a profound and living footprint in the regional cuisine. Often called “poor man’s meat”, beans sat alongside lentils, chickpeas and other legumes in being a staple of the peasant diet. They offered the protein that people didn’t get from meat, which was largely unaffordable at the time.

Despite centuries of suspicion and mistrust, beans have made themselves the true stars of the spring platter. A few weeks from now, we’ll finally be able to eat them au naturel, with nothing more than a slice of fresh pecorino cheese. Another must try is maccheroni alla poderana, one of the most famous recipes from southern Tuscany’s Maremma region, a combination of beans, artichokes, sausage and onions. And we can’t forget the Umbrian classic scafata, a hearty springtime soup made of beans, tomatoes, Welsh onion, chard, fresh mint and wild fennel.