The Minutiae of Broad Beans

There’s a paint­ing by the six­teenth-cen­tury artist Titian in Liverpool’s Walk­er Art Gal­lery that seems to tell its entire story at a glance. Sup­per at Emmaus depicts the moment Jesus reveals his iden­tity to his fol­low­ers, after the Cru­ci­fix­ion and Resur­rec­tion. The dis­ciple on the left of the paint­ing looks suit­ably startled to dis­cov­er who his din­ing com­pan­ion is, while the fol­low­er on the right seems to be mak­ing up his mind wheth­er to offer apo­lo­gies or con­grat­u­la­tions. But look at the table­cloth, in front of the loaf of bread. There, oddly and even a little pro­sa­ic­ally, is a little heap of broad beans.  What can they be doing there? And where are the mounds of grapes, flagons of wine and plat­ters of roast meats that we’ve come to expect from such reli­gious paint­ings?

Caravaggio’s Sup­per at Emmaus, painted in 1601, goes for a much grander menu to mark the solem­nity of the occa­sion: a slightly com­ic roast chick­en, grapes, pomegranates and figs. In his 1620 ver­sion, Bar­to­lomeo Cav­arozzi plumps for a decanter of wine and enough grapes to fill a grocer’s shelves. So why Titian’s broad beans? The pos­sible answer is that broad beans were once thought to embody the soul of the dead (the Greek math­em­atician Pythagoras issued an injunc­tion for­bid­ding any­one to eat beans, ever). Per­haps to coun­ter­bal­ance the note of mel­an­choly intro­duced by the beans, Titian scattered a few bor­age flowers over the table­cloth, since these were thought to chase away sad­ness.

Fly­ing in the face of Pythagoras’ instruc­tions, I bring you a broad bean con­fec­tion that is res­ol­utely cheer­ful and sunny, with or without the perky bor­age flowers. August is the height of the broad bean sea­son, so cast mel­an­choly aside and cel­eb­rate.


  • Hand­ful of beans per per­son
  • Sour dough bread
  • Clove gar­lic
  • Ricotta
  • Hand­ful of pea shoots
  • Grated zest of lem­on
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Season­ing
  • Hand­ful herb flowers — I used oregano this time, but thyme, rose­mary or chive would be good too
  • Hand­ful mint leaves

Pod the beans and boil in salted water for no more than two minutes. Allow to cool and then peel off the leath­ery jack­ets. Lightly toast the bread and rub with the cut side of a gar­lic clove. Spread each slice with ricotta cheese, sprinkled with a little salt and black pep­per. Tip the beans on top, fol­lowed by the pea shoots, torn mint leaves and a few herb flowers. Mix the lem­on zest with the olive oil and drip a little on top of each toast.

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