Broad beans or Vicia faba, is a species of flowering plant in the vetch and pea family, Fabacea.
It is considered that broad beans were cultivated in the Middle East for 8,000 years before spreading to Western Europe, along with the garden pea, lentil and chickpea. The earliest archeological findings of broad bean remains are from the Neolithic period (6800BC-6500BC) from Israel. After 3000BC, numerous archeological remains can be found in the Mediterranean and central Europe.
Broad beans were cultivated by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. In Egypt, broad beans were considered as the food for poor man and shunned unfashionable by the upper classes. In ancient Rome, broad beans were used in funeral rites and Pythagoras forbade people to eat them, believing them to contain the souls of the dead. In ancient Greece, initiates of the Elusinian mysteries (cult initiations) would drink kykeon and visit the home of Kyamites, the Greek demigod of broad beans. In Italy, broad beans are traditionally sown on 2nd November, All Souls Day. Small cakes made in the shape of broad beans and are known as ‘fave dei morti’ or ‘beans of the dead’. The story is that Sicily once experienced a failure of all crops other than the beans. These beans kept the population from starvation and the people’s gratitude was given to Saint Joseph. Broad beans subsequently became a traditional feature on Saint Joseph’s Day altars in many Italian communities. Some people carry a broad bean for good luck as they believe that if one carries a broad bean, one will never be without the essentials of life.
Today, broad beans are cultivates in more than fifty different countries, China accounting for the largest fraction of world production. Broad beans are used as a cover crop to prevent erosion in parts of the world because they can overwinter and as a legume they fix nitrogen in the soil.
Broad beans can be sown straight into the ground in October or November. This is supposed to give one a slightly earlier harvest however, after personal experience I would recommend waiting until the next sowing season, February. Sowing the seeds in autumn produces all sorts of pest and weather related problems – you have to keep them alive over the winter months under fleece or another cover without a pest eating them or the beans rotting off and they produce perhaps a week earlier than the plants sown the following year. I have grown ‘Masterpiece Green Longpod’ and ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ reliably.
I grew mine this year by planting them in tall yoghurt pots (the type you buy Yeo Valley yoghurt or something similar), with a hole punched in at the bottom to allow water out, in February. After filling the pots with compost, I sowed one bean per pot, 5cm (2inches) deep and kept them in a warm room until they had germinated. I then put them on a sunny windowsill during the day time and took them down and kept them on the floor and night time when the temperatures dropped. Once they were big enough, I moved them to a cooler room to try and harden them off, making sure they had ample light. Once they were getting too big for their pots, I planted them outside, 23cm (9inches) apart and gave them small sticks for support. These eventually turned into canes and then string to hold them upright. I planted them on in soil that had been prepared with well-rotted manure, Blood, Fish and Bone and mulch. You want to grow the beans in a sunny spot with a rich, fertile soil, manured, and hopefully with protection from the wind. Keep well watered. Pinch out the growing tips after the first flowers have set pods to deter blackfly (aphids) and encourage further pods to set by directing the plant’s energy into the developing pods.
You should be able to harvest your broad beans from perhaps April, May or June, all the way to September if you stagger the sowings. The pods are ready for harvesting when they are well filled and the seed is still soft. It is recommended that you allow the beans to be around a third of the weight of the unopened pods before picking. You will then need to remove the beans from the pods before cooking. They can be frozen once podded and cooked in containers of plastic bags.
Unfortunately, like potato blight, powdery mildew and cabbage whites roaming the brassica beds, it is pretty much impossible to prevent aphids from appearing on your broad bean plants. Aphids appear as small, soft-bodied insects on the underside of leaves and the stems of the plant. They are usually green or yellow in colour but may be pink, brown, red, or black depending on species and host plant. If aphid infestation is heavy, it may cause yellow, distorted leaves with spots and stunted shoots. Severe infestations can significantly reduce yields. Look out for ants climbing over them – they are looking for the aphids that secrete honeydew that the ants are detecting that creates mould on the plant. You can spray them chemically if you are into that sort of thing. Picking and squashing small infestations is possible or spraying them off with water. Nettles are supposed to be a sacrificial plant that draws aphids to them and away from the broad beans so leave any that grow nearby. The other brilliant plant to distract those aphids is summer savoury – if you can grow it. I managed to get some to germinate this year but the slugs ate them as soon as they were planted out among the beans. Aphids do have a few predators that can be introduced, such as ladybirds.
Other than the aphids and usual slugs and snails who will always love a member of the pea family, broad beans can suffer from fungal diseases, such as powdery or downey mildew or root rots. Make sure your plants have good air circulation, so no weeds and lots of space between them, and keep them well watered through dry patches but do your best to not waterlog them, especially during the winter months.
Broad beans are high in protein (26.12g per 100g). They are a rich source of dietary fibre, phosphorous, copper, manganese and folate. They are high in phyto-nutrients such as isoflavone and plant-sterols and contain Levo-dopa, a precursor of neuro-chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine. They contain good amounts of vitamin B6 and B1, riboflavin and niacin. Accounting for 23% of our daily recommended intake of potassium, broad beans are one of the highest plant sources of this mineral.
To cook broad beans, pod them and place them in a pan of boiling water for a few minutes until just tender. Drain and serve as a side-dish as you would for any pea or bean or use them as the main protein for a meal. I like them with potato or rice. Chefs applaud their companionship with fresh herbs, lemon juice and salty cheeses, like feta or goat’s. River Cottage advertises an interesting houmous recipe as an alternative to chickpeas.
You can pick the pods when they are very small to begin with – no more than a few centimetres long and boil them in water like you would cook runner beans later on in the year. These go marvellously with some fried onion and tomatoes poured over some spaghetti. Being dull, I do like to eat my podded broad beans boiled and plain but they do go very well with this tomato risotto recipe…
Tomato Risotto with Broad Beans
When making this, I used left over pre-cooked rice we had from the previous night. It meant that the rice was quite soft and gooey and not particularly crisp and fried. Of course, you can cook the rice in the actual dish, just give it at least half an hour.
– 1 large onion, finely sliced – Butter, for frying – x 2 400g tinned tomatoes – 2 large garlic cloves, finely diced – 400g brown basmati rice – Dash of soy sauce – Dash of Lee and Perrins – Salt and Pepper – Grated parmesan or cheddar cheese, to serve (optional) – 100g broad beans, podded – Other greens to serve (peas, courgettes, kale etc.), optional
- In a large frying pan, melt the butter and add the sliced onion, frying until golden brown. Tip in the tomatoes and add the finely diced garlic, stirring to combine. Turn the heat down to simmer.
- Add the rice and stir in, allowing it to soak up the tomato mixture.
- Add a dash of soy sauce and Lee and Perrins for extra flavour, followed by a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Stir in.
- Leave to simmer for about ten minutes or until you are ready to serve. Give it a final stir – you want the rice to have absorbed most of the liquid and to be well combined with the gloop.
- In a small saucepan, bring some water to the boil and add the podded broad beans, turning it down to simmer for a few minutes until the beans are cooked and tender. Tip the cooked broad beans on top of the risotto.
- Serve alongside other greens and with a sprinkle of cheese on top, if desired.