The Broad Bean – Vica fabe – Pea Family By Dave Hamilton

Known since Neolithic times find out why this pea relative would have kept the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras awake at night.


The broad bean or as many know it as the faba bean has a whole host of names the fava bean, horse bean, field bean, tick bean and Windsor bean. Before the discovery of the Americas it was also the only bean known of in the old world.

Although no near ancestor has been found in the wild, remains of the broad or faba bean have been found in Neolithic sites in Israel dating back to 6800-6500 BC. It took another 3000 years to find its way north to the Mediterranean and central Europe but it remained a valuable source of protein throughout the old world until the introduction of the phaselolus bean from across the Atlantic. They were eaten by the Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, in Northern India and in Roman times the gladiators were fed a staple diet of beans and barley to prepare them for battle.

It is popular myth that the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras died being pursued into a bean field. He felt unable to trample on any of the beans believing that the souls of man transformed into beans after death.

Bean Nutrition

For centuries broad beans were a valuable source of protein when meat was scarce. They are high in protein (about 25% when dried) but lack some amino-acids so should be combined with a grain such as wheat, barley or rice. This is done quite naturally which is why popular dishes such as beans on toast and dhal and rice contain both a bean and a grain.

Broad beans also contain copper, niacin, folate and vitamin C. There is of course more of these nutrients, especially vitamin C, in fresh beans than dried.

It is a surprising fact that the enzyme for digesting the broad-bean is lacking in some 100 million people world-wide. This condition is known as favism is a form of haemolytic anaemia and effects mainly people of Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern descent. To confuse the Pythagoras link even further it is thought that the triangle loving ancient Greek also suffered from the condition.

Growing Broad Beans

Broad beans are very easy to grow. When I first started growing vegetables I was given some dried broad beans and not really knowing what I was doing I planted them in the only available bit of land I had at the time. This was in a border next to a fence under some willow trees on a cold March morning. Come the early summer I had completely forgot about them and I was sitting in the garden when I noticed a large bean pod glistening in the sun. To my amazement I opened the pod to be presented with a pod full of large fresh beans.

This illustrates how hard it is to go wrong with broad beans. However it would perhaps be a better idea to take a bit more care in planting. This extract from Newnes Household Encyclopaedia, although dating back to the thirties, perfectly describes how to sow broad beans.

These require strong well manured soil. Sow on a sheltered border early in November for an early crop, and again in January. Protect with litter (leaves) or branches against the frost. Set in rows 2 feet apart, with about 3 inches between the seeds, and about 3 inches deep. For the general crop sow at intervals from January to June. Pinch of the tops if there is any sign of black fly.

Cooking Broad Beans

Fresh broad beans only need to be quickly blanched for about 3-4 minutes. They can then be added to salads made into a curry or served as side perhaps with a little olive oil.

Although I am a vegetarian I was recently asked to write a cook book which included meat recipes. I am not anti-meat but feel out modern meat industry leaves a lot to be desired. Animals are often kept in appalling conditions and to make matters worse it can be shipped from the other side of the globe.

So a quick note to all you carnivores, please try and think about the meat you are using – try to use organic seasonal meat from your own country.

Grilled Lamb with Broad Beans and Rice

Serves 4


4 Lean Lamb Chops
8 Spring Onions
2-3 Cloves of Garlic Finely Chopped
500g/1lb Fresh Broad Beans shelled (If using dried then soak them over night)
250g Brown Basmati Rice (Use white basmati if you can’t find brown)
Black Pepper
One Tablespoon of Chopped fresh Mint or two teaspoons of dry
A little vegetable oil


Pre-heat the grill to moderately hot. Cut the Onions into small pieces and soften on a low heat in a little oil Stir the broad beans into the pan and after about two minutes add the rice
Pour 750ml (Just over a pint) of water over the rice and cook for about 20 minutes (or as packet instructions) until the rice is soft and all the water is absorbed, making sure it doesn’t boil dry
As this is cooking grill the Lamb on both sides turning after about 6-10 minutes or when browned
Mix the mint and pepper in with the rice and beans cook for a further minute and serve with the lamb.

Broad bean & Pasta Salad

Serves 2


1 Bunch of watercress
2 Handfuls of broad beans blanched
150g of dried or fresh pasta boiled
1 Grated Carrot
Some toasted sesame seeds


2 Tablespoons Extra virgin olive oil
1 Table spoon white wine vinegar
1 Teaspoon Whole-grain mustard
Fresh dill or parsley


Mix everything, except the dressing ingredients, together in a large bowl.

In a small bowl add the oil and vinegar to the mustard and beat until thoroughly mixed and add the chopped herbs.

Pour the dressing onto the salad and serve.

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