ature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold/Her early leaf’s a flower/But only so an hour/Then leaf subsides to leaf/So Eden sank to grief/So dawn goes down to day/Nothing gold can stay.
— Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
On the third Wednesday this month, spring officially springs. Along with it, a host of fresh fruit and produce return to tables and trattorie across Italy. This means the lettuce will be crisper, the fruit sweeter, and the vegetables more savory than any other time of the year. And there can be no better time than now to follow the sound alimentary advice offered by food writer and journalist Michael Pollan in a recent New York Times essay: “Eat food. Not much. Mostly plants.”
In springtime, Italy’s first golden green plant is the fava bean, a swift-growing legume with a noble pedigree. You’ll see them everywhere over the next few months, offered up still in the pod like a passel of grass snakes caught mid-twine, or perhaps as a creamy vellutata or pasta accompaniment in your favorite restaurant.
Fava beans, or fave, as Italians call them in the plural, have been circulating in the Mediterranean basin for more than two thousand years. The first Western mention of them can be found in the writings of Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who indicated the fava bean as a “refuge of dead souls.” There is evidence of their use in funeral rituals by both the Egyptians and the Romans.
If this connection with death strikes you as unseemly for such a sweet, nutritious neonato, bear in mind the rather straightforward explanation. To begin with, fava beans come in a tough, inedible pod — bodies in a coffin for the more pagan among us — and have a dimpled, vaguely embryonic shape. They can be desiccated and eaten long after other vegetables have withered away: nutrition in the afterlife.
But much more to the point, Pythagoras and his macabre pals lived at a time when many people suffered from “favism,” a severe anemic reaction to an enzyme in the fava bean. Favism breaks apart red blood cells and attacks the kidneys. Even with modern medicine, that’s hardly a walk in the park; just think how unpleasant it must have been in Greco-Roman times.
Today, “favism” is a recognized disease, usually detected in childhood, and we’ve lost our need for malignant pod souls to explain it away.
If you’re still with me after this rather saturnine segue, you’ve made it through to the good news: a fine fava bean is a filling, wholesome, nutrient-rich legume. Good ones are crunchy and sweet; mediocre are crunchy and a little chalky to the taste; bad ones are limp and bitter. Spit that out!
In southern and central Italy, they are most often served right from the pod with a sizable hunk of fresh pecorino cheese; one of those wonderfully simple, historically established culinary traditions that no single region can claim as its own, though many (especially Lazio) have tried. The fragrant creaminess of the cheese is complemented perfectly by the sweet acridity of the fresh beans, and taken together they provide a snack or light meal that is both healthy and delicious. Add a couple of glasses of sparkling white wine (or even a fruity red), a spot of spring sunshine, and you’ll have at least a piece of that hour Frost waxed, well, poetic over.
In the north, fresh pecorino is often substituted with salame. Admittedly, this combination is a little less light-hearted than the southern version, though not for this less appetizing. Make sure you use fresh, “soft” salame; harder salame has hung longer, and tend to be too salty to make the pairing palatable.
For anyone who has never tried fave, and is worried about the possibility of favism, I should emphasize that it remains a rare disorder, generally affecting people of Mediterranean, African or Southeast Asian descent. Cooking fave often eliminates the problem, and you can always start by eating small amounts and monitoring your body’s reaction. Physicians can also easily identify the disease with a simple blood test.
Open your mouths to the dead souls of spring! Your palate will thank you.