by Angela Cotton
There are few things more anticipated in the spring than the annual return of fava beans.
They’re spring’s greatest chameleon and a chef’s favored ally- gracing green everything from fresh pastas to ragouts tucked under spring lamb or veal tenderloins.
Favas are cultivated from one end of Italy to the other which helps to explain their distinctly Mediterranean nature. In the South portion of the boot they’ve been known as la carne dei poveri, “the poor man’s meat,” and are the basis of many traditional dishes. In Tuscany, they’re called baccelli (Italian for pods) and are most often eaten tender and young, straight from the pod—and if possible from the garden—accompanied by a tart, fresh pecorino cheese made with the milk of ewes that have grazed on fragrant spring grasses and herbs. Near Rome, fave are often braised with onions and pancetta and are essential to spring vegetable soups.
It’s hard to say exactly when favas made their shift from ethnic specialty to new-American mainstay. I read in a past issue of Saveur that Chez Panisse might be accountable for first introducing favas to California cuisine. Judy Rodgers, currently of San Francisco’s noted Zuni Café, remembers shelling favas when she worked at the Berkeley landmark in the early 1970s, at which point the beans were virtually unknown in most West Coast restaurant kitchens. Now, they’re a favored crop, loving the cooler climates of California coastline but planted vastly across the bay area.
However the initial introduction, the bay area has fava fever. At the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market this past weekend, the stalls of purveyors were heaped high with favas bulging in their pods, alongside radiant, spiky artichokes, bright spring carrots, pearly spring onions, young garlic stalks, and the first fragrant fronds of wild fennel. These are the harbingers of spring, yearly reminders that warm, sun-filled days are on their way.
In fava season at The French Laundry, the dining room staff rejoices over one such savored sign of spring, while the commis’ in the prep kitchen welcome the season’s biggest pain in the ass with slightly less enthusiasm. De-shelling fava beans is more like double deconstruction- after you string and shuck them, you have to remove their individual wax-like coating. It’s a tedious amount of time to spend on a bean. it’s a daily task that usually envelops everyone at one point or another. For those of us incapable of passing the task to budding line chefs, it’s something to do on a Sunday afternoon around the kitchen table or on the front porch with friends. It becomes akin to gardening- a concentrative but thoughtless Zen-like activity that results in tangible results and a simple satisfaction unique to any other. And, in celebration of the season, it’s a task instantly eased with brightening weather, good company and a bottle of wine.