What are fava beans? Aren't they just broad beans?

What are fava beans? Aren't they just broad beans?

by Nick Saltmarsh

Fava beans are very close to our hearts at Hodmedod, which we founded in 2012 with the simple aim of getting British-grown fava beans back into British kitchens. The fava bean was then almost unknown in British cuisine though it's better known and more widely eaten now. But still we're frequently asked, "What are fava beans?", "Aren't they just broad beans?"

Fava beans or broad beans?

Fava beans are the dried beans of the Vicia faba species of the legume family. They're the same species as the fresh or frozen green broad beans more familiar in British cooking but fava beans are the fully mature dried fruit of smaller seeded varieties.

Varieties of Vicia faba grown to be eaten as fresh broad beans tend to have larger, flatter, broader (hence the name) seeds. Dried fava beans are also known as field beans, horse beans or even tic beans (a name for the very smallest varieties). In US English however the name fava refers to fresh broad beans, infamously washed down with Italian wine.

While broad beans are picked fresh from the living green bean plants, fava beans have to mature and senesce, the plants and pods dying, drying and blackening, before the beans are harvested.

As the dried seeds of a leguminous plant they're a kind of pulse, like most pulses they can be cooked either as whole beans, skin and all, or as split beans, with the skin removed and the bean split into into its two halves, the cotyledons.

A short history of fava beans

Fava are the original Old World bean (from a Euro-centric perspective). There's evidence of fava bean cultivation as long as 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. The beans were among the first crops introduced to Britain by Neolithic farmers, around 5,000 years ago, though much less common than cereals like emmer and naked barley. Vicia faba beans, historically known as Celtic beans or horse beans, were more widely grown from the Bronze Age, especially in Southern England.

The beans remained an important part of British diets, particularly peasant diets, through the Medieval period, as a protein-rich food that could be stored and eaten year-round. Like dried peas, beans were commonly eaten as a porridge or made into bread.

However as the country became wealthier, farming became more productive and food storage improved, meat and dairy became more widely available and largely replaced beans and other pulses as our main source of protein. The Black Death played a role too, as the reduced population had access to more agricultural resources. Only those who couldn't afford meat had to keep eating beans, leading to them being stigmatised as the the food of the poor.

Farmers kept growing the beans though, as nutritious source of protein for livestock and an valuable part of crop rotations. Like all legumes, fava beans are a low input crop that puts fertility into the soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen through symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria. They contribute to healthy soils and biodiversity and make an excellent break crop, interrupting the build-up of cereal pests and diseases.

Fava beans are still widely eaten in the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa, where they're the central ingredients in dishes like ful medames or Egyptian style falafel or ta'amia. They're a fabulous ingredient in almost limitless recipes!

Since 2012 we've been banging the drum for the superb fava beans grown by British farmers. But we're not going to stop. There's room for plenty more fava beans in our kitchens and diets, whether dried, canned, milled, roasted or even fermented.

Postscript: A good question was asked on Twitter: are fava beans similar to faba beans? They're the same thing! The letter b does a funny thing of turning into a v sometimes. It's called betacism apparently.




Nick Saltmarsh
Nick Saltmarsh

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