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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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.

  3. So glad you are back. Fas­cin­at­ing back story — I’m going to be inspect­ing every paint­ing I see from now on for sym­bolic food items! Had a broad bean hum­mus today with lemon and mint — divine.

    • 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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