Split open a young green pod and inside you’ll find a row of perfectly formed beans. Pop one straight into your mouth and let its fresh, delicate and creamy texture banish the memory of a tough, grey, floury vegetable served for school dinners forever.
The Broad Bean or vicia faba, is also known as, among others, English, Fava, field and Windsor bean. This bean has been (ahem) around for thousands of years. The earliest known archeological fava bean remains are from the Neolithic period (6800 to 6500 BC) in Israel. The ancient Greeks deemed beans to be a fit offering to their god Apollo and several dynasties in ancient Rome took their names from legumes, including the families, Cicero (chickpea), Fabius (fava), Lentullus (lentil) and Piso (pea). Originating from the Mediterranean, it is thought that broad beans were one of the first vegetables to be cultivated by people. In Britain and for most of the Mediterranean, they were the only beans available until explorers and merchants, post-Columbus, introduced the Phaseolus bean type (runner, French and haricot etc) from the New World in the 15th century.
Broad beans grow best in sheltered, southern gardens with well-drained soils. They come in climbing and bush varieties. Plant the seeds directly into the ground in November, or between March to early May, to harvest throughout the summer.
Sow the seeds 5-7.5cm (2-3in) deep and 15-23cm (6-9in) apart, depending on the type of bean. Ensure that you remove any weeds immediately they are spotted! Tall types may well need staking. Smaller, more bushy varieties, like the Sutton, usually support each other, especially when they are planted in double rows. Broad beans come in several varieties, A gardener’s favourite is the Aquadulce Claudia: a large, hardy longpod.
The Sutton, as mentioned above, is a dwarf variety that produces small, tender beans. For something different try the tall Crimson Flowered broad bean, an old heritage variety that bears a beautifully scented flower.
Unless there’s been a lot of rain, soak the plants well at the start of flowering and again two weeks later. When the lowest truss of blossom has formed small pods, pinch out the tips of the beans; this helps promote fruit set and reduce the problems with blackfly. These tips can also be steamed or stir-fried and eaten. Start to harvest once the beans have begun to visibly swell inside. The small beans are sweeter, more tender and delicious raw or gently steamed. As the season continues, blanch and de-skin the larger broad beans. They go brilliantly with all sorts of pork dishes. Alternatively, cook and blend with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper and make a hummus.