Sacred beans

A Roman recipe with broad beans (fava beans)
Extra: Italian recipe with broad beans from the sixteenth century

Emperor VitelliusPrior to the transatlantic migration of the American Phaseolus-family (amongst them kidney beans and French beans), the only beans known to the ancient world were broad beans or fava beans. Of course there were other legumes, like peas, chick peas and lentils, but these aren't called beans. The broad bean (Vicia faba or Faba vulgaris) has been on the menu since prehistoric times. In modern times broad beans are grown in kitchen gardens or allotment gardens (people sometimes still have traumatic memories of mountains of broad bean pods they had to help shell when they were children). In the Netherlands broad beans were often preserved in glass jars, in Africa or the Middle East the beans are preserved by drying. And just as you can buy peas whole with skin, and without skin as split peas, you can buy whole dried broad beans with skin, and without skin like 'split beans'. These are not green, but yellow. However, the recipes on this page are meant for fresh broad beans.

Broad beans and Vitellius

The collection of Roman recipes De re coquinaria (Apicius, edition) has two recipes for broad beans or peas à la Vitellius. Aulus Vitellius (15-69 AD) was emperor of Rome for just three months, the third emperor within a year during a civil war. His successor Vespiasianus ended the war and he reigned until his death in 79 AD. Vitellius has been described by contemporary historans like Suetonius and Tacitus as a gluttonous, perverse brute, but these writers were not without bias and certainly not on the hand of Vitellius. He does however seem to have liked his food, enough to have several recipes named after him. The recipes for broad beans can be found in the Fifth Book of De re coquinaria (Ospreon Liber Quintus), which contains nourishing dishes with legumes. The first recipe for pisam Vitellianam siue fabam is a purée of peas or broad beans, seasoned with pepper, lovage and ginger, hard boiled egg yolks, honey, wine and vinegar. The other recipe, which is reproduced below, is prepared with whole peas or broad beans. I surmise that the first recipe is with dried legumes in winter, the second with fresh legumes in summer. There is another recipe in De re coquinaria that is named after the emperor; in Book Eight, recipes with quadrupeds, you can find porcellum Vitellianum: roast sucking pig with a sauce made from pepper, lovage, liquamen, wine and passum.

The 'sacred bean'

Broad beans and superstition

The ancient broad bean had quite a reputation. The Egyptians considered broad beans unclean, and according to Herodotus, their priests weren't allowed to even look at them, let alone eat the beans (fish was also taboo for the priests - Historiae II.37 edition p.110). The Greek philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras (570-495 vC) was also very anti-broad beans.
Romans thought the beans could house souls of the dead. During the Lemuria or Lemuralia, in the nights of 9, 11 and 13 May, the pater familias had to get up at midnight, and walk around the house barefoot, throwing nine black beans whilst speaking the words "Haec ego mitto. His redimo meque meosque fabis" (These I throw. With these beans I redeem me and mine). The spirits would settle in the beans and these dissapeared mysteriously. A nice scene for the tv-serial Supernatural. The custom is said to be as old as the foundation of the city of Rome: Romulus tried to appease the spirit of Remus, the brother he had murdered (Ovid, Fasti vss 473 ff - English translation). In 609 or 610 AD the last day of the Lemuria (13 May) was christianized by pope Boniface IV, to make it the feast of Allsaints. A century later, in 739, Allsaints was shifted to coincide with the celtic Samhain at 1 November by pope Gergory III.
The Dutchman Faas mentions in Around the Table of the Romans (edition) another interesting fact: the broad bean was considered sacred, because the unskinned bean has a slit that reminds one of female labia. But when you remove the gray skin, the bean appears to have a little penis with two testicles. This was so amazing, that it had to have a higher meaning. Faas does not mention any source, but it probably was Aristotle, in a lost work on the Pythagoreans, that was quoted by third century biographer of Greek philosophers Diogenes Laërtius. There is lots more to tell about broad beans in ancient and more modern times (Jake and the bean stalk), but then this page would become even more overcrowded than it already is. Anyway, however sacred the bean was, the Romans had recipes for it.

Broad beans and health issues

According to some, the superstition around broad beans was caused by some of their properties. Some people with G6PD-deficiency will suffer from hemolityc anemia and jaundice when eating broad beans (this special variant is called favism). Eating raw broad beans is not wise, unless they are really young. Foodreference explains why: all beans, but especially red kidney beans, contain a toxic agent called Phytohaemagglutinin. Broad beans contain only 5 to 10% as much of this toxic, but still it is better to cook your beans before eating them. Another issue is that the consumption of broad beans will lessen the effect of antidepressant drugs (MAO-inhibitors). On the other hand, broad beans are rich in L-dopa, which is used in the clinical treatment of Parkinson's disease.
Finally: as with all beans, the consumption of broad beans causes flatulence.

The original recipe
From De re coquinaria - Apicius (edition p.212/213, recipe 5.3.9). This is not the first recipe on this site from the Roman cookbook. See the pages on Roman mussels, Omelette with quails and asparagus, Roman apricots and Roman broccoli. The English translation of the recipe is from the edition by Grocock and Grainger.

Pisam siue fabam Vitellianam : pisam siue fabam coquis. cum despumauerit mittis porrum coriandrum et flores maluarum. dum coquitur, teres piper ligusticum origanum feniculi semen, suffundis liquamen et uinum, <mittis> in caccabum, adicies oleum. cum ferbuerit, agitas. oleum uiridem insuper mittis et inferes.Vitellian peas or beans: cook the peas or beans; when you have skimmed them, put in leek and coriander and mallow flowers. While it is cooking, pound pepper, lovage, oregano, fennel seed; pour on liquamen and wine, put in the pan, add oil. When it is simmering, stir it, pour green oil on top and serve.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
Are the recipes in De re coquinaria meant for fresh or dried peas and broad beans? Faas (Around the Table of the Romans, edition) preferred dried, skinned broad beans, Gozzini (A taste of Ancient Rome edition) fresh beans. The skimming of the cooking liquid would indicate dried beans, but since this recipe is published in May, I have chosen fresh beans. The beans can be used with skin or skinned. Frozen broad beans are also good, you can even double-pod them when they are thawed.
Two kinds of olive oil are used in this recipe. To fry the herbs, use ordinary olive oil, to finish, take extra virgin oil. It would be a pity to heat virgin oil, as taste and smell will deteriorate.
For 4 people as side dish, for 2 people as vegetarian main dish, with cheese and perhaps bread; preparation in advance 20 minutes; preparation 15 minutes.

Fava beans à la VitelliusIngredients
1.5 kilo (1 1/3 dry quart or 12 cups) unshelled broad beans (for 500 gram/4 cups broad beans with skin), 2.2 kilo (2 dry quarts or 18 cups) if you want to double-pod them (for 500 gram/4 cups skinned broad beans)
50 gram (1/2 cup) leek (only the white part)
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro or coriandre leaves
1 Tbsp flowers of common mallow
1/2 tsp black pepper corns
1 tsp lovage leaves (or 1/2 tsp lovage seeds)
1/2 Tbsp fresh oregano
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 Tbsp garum
3 Tbsp white wine
1 Tbsp olive oil (ordinary, yellow)
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
extra mallow leaves and flowers for garnish

Preparation in advance
Shell the broad beans, discard the pods. Optionally, skin or double pod the beans.
Slice the white of the leek into ringlets, chop cilantro and mallow flower leaves.

Boil the beans in a little water. Add leek, cilantro and mallow flowers as soon as the water is boiling. Boil until the beans are done. Shelled beans require ten to fifteen minutes, double-podded beans just five minutes. Drain well.
Grind pepper, lovage, oregano and fennel seeds, temper with garum and wine.
Heat oil in in a skillet, add the herbs with wine and garum, stir until half of the liquid has evaporated. Then add broad beans, lower the heat, and stir until the beans are heated through. If you want, you can add cilantro and mallow flowers just before serving: cilantro loses its taste, and mallow flowers their colour when boiled.

To serve
Scoop the beans onto a preheated dish, pour extra virgin olive oil over them. Decorate with fresh mallow flowers and leaves. Serve as side dish, or with fresh goat cheese as vegetarian main dish.

Extra recipe: thick soup of fresh broad beans or peas with saffron and herbs

This recipe is taken from the sixteenth-century cookbook Opera by Italian Bartolomeo Scappi edition, more on Scappi and his book: Tortelli in brodo and Broccoli in de Opera). In the Libro Terzo (Book III, with recipes for Lent and fish days) of this cookbook is the following recipe for minestre (a first course, thick soup or pottage) with fresh peas, broad beans, chick peas or Phaseolus beans. Whatever legume, as long as they are fresh, and not dried. (Mind: Phaseolus beans are the American beans - Lima beans, haricot beans - already on the menu in Europe by then). In Italy you can find fresh broad beans from March onward. Where I live, in the Netherlands, fresh broad beans aren't available until the end of May, too late for Lent (see this article with recipes for Good Friday) so we'll have to prepare them on one of the weekly fish days (Friday, Wednessday, and/or Tuesday and Saturday, depending on century and location).
Of course, Scappi also privides us with a version for meat-days (Libro Secundo). In this version the beans or peas are cooked in fat broth with sliced pork jowl, and brought to taste with anise and parsley. Here, the puréing of part of the beans is optional, but then you also add pepper and cinamon. And if you want a richer dish, add stuffed goat-kid heads, young cockerels, doves, young goslings and ducklings. The recipe starts with the season of fresh peas and broad beans: "which in Rome goes from the end of March throughout June" (edition p.234).
The English translation is by Terence Scully (edition p.367).

Per far minestra di Piselli & Fave fresche (Liber III, 249)
Piglinosi i piselli o baccelli, sgraninosi, & ponganosi in un uaso con oglio d' oliue, sale, & pepe, & faccianosi soffriggere pian piano, aggiungendoui tanta acqua tinta di zafferano, che stiano coperti di due dita, & come saranno poco men che cotti, pestisene una parte nel mortaro, e stemperisi con il medesimo brodo, & mettasi nel uaso con una branchata d' herbuccie battute, e faccianosi leuare il bollo, e seruanosi caldi. In questo medesimo modo si pu`o accomodare il cece fresco, hauendolo prima fatto perlessare, & fatto stare per un quarto d' hora nell' acqua fresca. In questo modo ancho si cuoce il fagiolo fresco.
To prepare a thick soup of fresh peas or beans
Get peas in their pods, shell them and put them into a pot with olive oil, salt and pepper. Sauté them gently, adding in enough water, tinged with saffron, to cover them by two fingers. When they are slightly underdone, grind some of them in a mortar, moistening them with that same broth, and put them back into the pot with a handful of beaten fine herbs. Bring it all to a boil and serve it hot.
You can do fresh chick peas the same way, having first parboiled them and let them sit a quarter of an hour in cool water. Fresh beans are also done that way.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
Since a part of the beans will be puréed in this recipe, they have to be double-podded. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of time fishing the tough grey skins out of your purée. From 1 kilo (8 cups or little less than 1 dry quart) bean pods you get about 330 gram (3 cups) shelled broad beans. If you double-pod these beans, you're left with about 220 gram (2 cups). The minestre is nourishing and very broad-beany tasting. If you want a deeper taste, use good chicken stock instead of water. This adaptation is for broad beans, but you can prepare the dish with any kind of bean (or pea). Just as long as these are fresh, not dried. On the picture below the dish is garnished with some violets, completely random.
For 4 to 6 persons (because it is very filling).

Pureed fava beans from the sixteenth centuryIngredients
2.5 kilo (ab. 2 1/4 dry quarts) broad beans in their pods, or 900 gram (9 cups) frozen shelled broad beans (600 gram/6 cups when double-poded)
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp saffron with 1 Tbsp boiling water
50 gram herbs (parsley, oregano, mint, sage, basil)
3.5 deciliter/1.5 cup boiling water

Preparation in advance
Shell the broad beans and double-pod or skin them.
Chop the herbs without stalks. The recipe mentions herbuccie battute, which would indicate pounded herbs, more like a purée.
Crush the saffron in one tablespoon hot water, to release the colour.

Heat the olive oil in a thick-bottomed skillet. Temper the heat, add broad beans, pepper and salt, and stir to cover the beans with oil. Now add saffron water and the rest of the boiling water. Cover, and let simmer at low heat for five minutes. Drain the beans, but save the cooking liquid. Purée half the beans in a blender with the cooking liquid to a thick consistency. Return to the pan with the remaing whole broad beans and herbs. Heat through gently until it almost boils, keep stirring to prevent burning. Then serve.

To serve
As a warm first course in early summer. If you don't tell your guests that it's a sixteenth century recipe, just serve it in a modern menu. Serve with toasted wholegrain bread.

All descriptions of ingredients

Garum or liquamen - Roman fish sauce, was used instead of salt. Can not be substituted with salt, but Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce are good alternatives. It's easy to make your own simple Roman Fish sauce.
Malva sylvestrisCommon mallow - Malva sylvestris is a perennial that was used by Greeks and Romans as kitchen herb, vegetable and medicine. The leaves were eaten as salad or boiled like spinach, and used as garnish (like we use lettuce). Several parts of the plant have medicinal use, for treatment of wounds or coughs, and to help labour. According to Pliny the Elder common mallow was good for 'anything': "si quis cotidie suci ex qualibet earum sorbeat cyathum dimidium, omnibus morbis cariturum" - if anyone takes a half spoonful juice of one of these [kinds of mallow], he will be free from all diseases, Naturalis Historiae Liber XX, 224). That is why mallow is also known as omnimorbium. Moreover, it is quite a decorative plant for your garden, what more could you wish for?

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