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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