Fava: the Ancient Mediterranean Bean

As part of the Old World legumes –together with chickpeas and lentils— fava was a most nutritious bean that fed ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Called ‘broad bean’ by the British and tuinbonen or 'garden beans' by the Dutch, it has been found in Neolithic sites in Israel dated back to 10,000 BC. Fava beans are the only crop known to have been domesticated in what is today Israel.

Fava remained a valuable source of protein throughout the Old World. For Greeks, like for most people in southern Europe and northern Africa, fava –both the fresh pods and the dried beans– remain an important legume and are cooked in a variety of ways. Israelis mix them into their hummus. Egyptians eat them mashed for breakfast.
[Fava bean frittata
A famine was supposedly the origin of the Sicilian tradition. Once fava beans were simply used as fodder for cattle. The hungry farmers cooked these beans and survived. Sicilians serve fava beans in frittatas or cook them with garlic.

Greeks don’t peel the shelled fava, an easy but somewhat tedious kitchen chore. Italians, however, insist that they have to be peeled.
On the island of Crete you get a handful of freshly harvested fava pods with raki (ρακή), the local grape-based pomace brandy. People shell and munch the fava as we do peanuts.

While scientists have been quite successful in tracing the domestication of wheat and other grains to specific areas ranging from Turkey to Iran, they had been less lucky with legumes, said Valentina Caracuta, an archaeobotanist[1]. One problem is that unlike grains, domesticated legume seeds have no visible characteristics that clearly distinguish them from wild varieties, she explains. If it has not gone extinct, the wild ancestor of today’s beans may be found in the area where it was first domesticated, Caracuta said. Recently, she found traces of a wild fava bean, growing on Mount Carmel (Israel), some 14,000 years ago[2].

[1] Caracuta et al: The onset of faba bean farming in the Southern Levant in Scientific Reports - 2015
[2] Caracuta et al: 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean in Scientific Reports - 2016

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