The Milkweed Diaries

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

All Hail the Mighty Fava!

Q. The fava bean is:

A) a cover crop
B) a delicacy
C) a soil aeration tool
D) an ornamental plant
E) a fertilizer factory
F) all of the above.

If you guessed "all of the above," congratulations. Yes, the fava is all that. And more.

Like many McDonalds-eating teenagers, I had never heard of fava beans until I saw "Silence of the Lambs" in high school and heard Dr. Hannibal Lecter's now-famous "with a nice chianti" remark. I didn't taste favas until sometime in my twenties, and ever since I have eaten them every chance I get. Fresh favas are juicy, buttery, and silky; dry favas are fat, nutty, and meaty, sticking to your ribs in a deeply satisfying way.

Technically, favas are not really beans, at least botanically speaking. Favas, vicia faba, are a legume in the vetch family, and one of the most ancient cultivated plants. But from a cooking and eating point of view, they look, feel, taste, and are cooked like beans -- savored fresh in the shell stage or as "gigantes" -- giant dry beans for winter eating.

From a gardening point of view, the non-bean status is clear, though. While beans can only be planted when the soil is warm and grow fast and furious in the heat of summer, favas like a long, cool growing season. We plant them in December, and harvest them in the Spring. They fill a great niche in the garden, growing when nothing else does, in the coldest months of the year.

And all that time they're growing, favas are making nitrogen and storing it around their roots in the soil. As nitrogen fixers, they literally produce fertilizer out of thin air. And their fiberous root systems grow and spread all through the winter and early spring, breaking up hard soil and aerating the garden beds. By the time you chop up the plants (in late May or early June here), the place where the favas were planted is full of the nitrogen-rich, loose and deeply aerated soil that gardeners dream of. Perfect for planting warm-season crops as soon as the favas are done!

Favas are such a good cover crop that some large-scale farmers use them solely for that purpose, tilling them under as green manure without even harvesting the beans. That would be a tragic waste to my mind.

We're planting five pounds of fava beans this month as a winter cover crop. They'll provide one of the earliest spring harvests from our garden and we'll eat them, dry them, and sell them fresh at the tailgate market.

Favas are one of the crops that we're experimenting with in our no-till system -- we've never tilled the rich and loose soil you can see in the photo above. We have been able to put worms and plants to work for us --starting out with cardboard/straw sheetmulch and allowing worms to breaking up the soil, then aerating with a broadfork, and then planting crops that loosen and aerate the soil with their root systems.

As if the food value and soil-building value of favas were not enough, the icing on the cake is their ornamental value. To my eye, their black and white pea-like flowers are elegant and lovely. Favas are one of the earliest plants to bloom in our garden, their flowers little bright spots against the vigorous, bushy green leaves of the fava plant. All of that green is a welcome sight in early spring, too, when most of the rest of the garden still looks fairly drab.

So here's to the fava, gourmet delicacy, garden workhorse, spring garden jewel, and sustenence-provider since ancient times. Viva la fava!

Favas planted last December, growing in early March of this year.

Favas in the garden in May

Big old juicy pods on the fava plants in May

Favas ready for shelling, May 2009.

More on favas at Foodista:
Fava Beans on Foodista


Aimee said...

I adore fava beans, but they are SUCH a hassle to prepare. I haven't ever grown them, but I probably should, since they are prohibitively expensive art the grocery store, when you can even find them at all. I surely can't plant in December though - the earth is frozen solid. Where do you LIVE?

Milkweed said...

Hey Aimee...
I'm in the mountains of western North Carolina, zone 6/7. I have heard that in colder places you can plant them as soon as the ground thaws in the spring....I've also heard (but never tried it out) that you can skip the second shelling when preparing them fresh - in other words, just take them out of the pod, but skip the steps of blanching and peeling each bean. I'm going to try it this spring and I'll let you know how they turn out.

el said...

Oh! I adore them too!

This year I experimented with a 2nd planting. I also ate the pods!! It does seem like such a waste of that vital, spongy green pod, and I found a recipe to cook the whole things, like southern cooked beans (the ones that spend about 4 hours on the stove). Of course, now that I mention it, I can't find the recipe now.

My daughter helped me shell some this summer and she thought the pods would make fine sleeping bags for her tiny toy pets.

Cate said...

Howdy! I chose your blog as one of the blogs I'd like to pass on the "Best Blog Award" to -- I think it's just a community pass-around type of award, and someone bestowed it on me this weekend. Please feel free to check out my latest post to grab the picture to repost, if you would like.

John said...

Thanks for the post on Fava Beans. I was able to purchase a pound of the large beans at an international market. They cost $4.38 for a pound bag. I also bought a pound bag of what is labelled Small Fava Beans and that cost $1.35. They are 3/8 to 1/2 inch in size.

Do you know what the difference is other than just a different variety?
Also I would really appreciate planting tips such as spacing and depth to plant. It appears that Asheville is almost identical to where I am as far as temperature so I am going to try and plant these soon. I will let you know how they do.

Thanks again.

Milkweed said...

Hi John,

We plant ours 2-3 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Favas are pretty easy, though -- in years past when I didn't have time to be meticulous with them, I've just broadcast handfuls in the garden and topped with a scattering of soil and straw. They grew, and produced mightily!

I would guess that the two fava types you bought are just two different varieties -- there don't seem to be nearly as many distinct varieties of fava in cultivation as you might expect given the plant's long history of cultivation. We planted "Broad Windsor" which is a standard variety, an heirloom from England, and is similar in size to the large favas you described. I will be curious to hear how the small ones turn out -- maybe they will have a distinct taste? You never know when you buy seeds from a mystery source like yours -- which makes for exciting garden surprises!

Where are you gardening?

John said...

Thanks for the cultivation information. The package of larger beans is from a company in Los Angeles that specializes in mid-eastern food. The dry fava beans can be found on the page - This site also has some seed for various herbs. The smaller Fava bean is Ziyad brand but look closer to those shown on this page

I am located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We have terrible soil - fine sandy soil and almost no organic matter so these should be good for the green manure and also the nitrogen.