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.

BROAD BEAN, PEA SHOOT AND RICOTTA BRUSCHETTA

  • 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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17 thoughts on “The Minutiae of Broad Beans

  1. I love broad beans, sadly this year we were unsuccessful in growing them. Does ‘the note of mel­an­choly intro­duced by the beans’ mean wind perhaps?

    • I once tried to grow a heritage broad bean, with beautiful plum-coloured flowers – a complete disaster.

  2. So pleased to see Eggs back with its usual great photos and words.
    It is thought that Pythagoras was right in banning fava (broad) beans because many people in his part of the world have an enzyme deficiency (G6PD) which results in them becoming anaemic if they eat them. The condition is carried on an abnormal X chromosome in a similar way to haemophilia. Hence men who inherit it, only having only one X, are susceptible, while women are protected by their second X. In the very rare women who have the condition, called Favism, both X chromosomes are abnormal.
    Besides beans, some medications including some antimalarials, have a similar effect. This was discovered when many black American GIs when given antimalarials developed anaemia. This is because there is an African variant. The rest of us can continue to enjoy broad beans fortunately.

    • Did Pythagoras work that out, or did he just hate the ‘melancholy’ bean, I wonder? How extraordinary – you learn something new every day.

    • Thank you, Sally – and funnily enough, I was in half a mind to puree the beans. Your hummus sounds wonderful. I love the small details in paintings. There’s a portrait by Meredith Frampton in Tate Modern, with a bowl of magnolia flowers half out of the frame. I’ve always wanted to know more about the significance of the subject’s red shoes.

    • I don’t have the knack of growing them at all. I’ve given up even trying and rely on my organic vegetable box instead.

  3. Welcome back, dear Charlie! And with a perfect concoction… light, summery and actually flavors I love. I adore broad beans but it is usually husband who makes them so they never find their way onto bread and ricotta. Must try this. And fascinating story. I have thought about studying food as depicted in paintings throughout the ages and you have made me realize just how interesting it is. Thank you. And so happy you are back.

    • How very kind of you, Jamie. Thank you so much – it’s good to be back. I agree that it’s a fascinating subject. I have a vague memory of a significant bunch of leeks in a painting on Holy Island in Northumberland, but can’t quite summon it to the front of my mind for the moment!

  4. Lovely to see you back. I’ve just come in from the Caulfield exhibition at the Tate, so food in art seems to be the theme of the day.

    • Thank you, Mary – I really appreciate your comment. I haven’t seen the Caulfield exhibition yet. As you say, how very timely. I love still-life of all kinds, although I’m dubious about the Italian and French idea of calling it the ‘dead’ life instead.

  5. Loved the background story, bringing back memories of all everything I learned and have since forgotten from when I worked in Italy. I remember some biscuits called fave dei morti that were traditionally eaten around All Souls Day – fave being the Italian for broad beans, though these were little almond biscuits, so I guess the significance continued in another form.
    I’ve only grown to appreciate broad beans recently, since we now grow them. The young tender ones are so much nicer than I remember from English school dinners!

    • Thanks for your comment, Kit. I think candied broad beans are a sweet treat on All Souls Day, but I didn’t know about the almond biscuits. English school dinners were shocking, weren’t they, and the broad beans were always served with their wizened, baggy jackets on.

  6. Look at those emerald green broad beans! How you make me miss summer… I love the minutiae of broad beans as explained by EotR, and the contrast between the meals that the different artists chose to depict. I am a sucker for details in paintings – everybody else is looking at the faces of the dinner guests in a great artwork; while I am looking at the dogs, cats and other animals and discarded goblets etc on the floor, hidden in the corners. So interesting! As always, your post feeds my appetite and my imagination 🙂

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