Sweet-hearts of the bean field

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What transforms a humdrum vegetable into a favourite ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine? Christopher Hirst rediscovers a seasonal treat…

Broad beans are a spring highlight in the Mediterranean. Marcella Hazan, regarded by many as the finest Italian cookery writer, describes them as ‘the most alluring of fresh beans, regrettably limited to a short period in early spring’. From a host of broad bean dishes, she most looks forward to ‘the first young tender broad beans that I shell and eat raw… with coarse salt and pecorino.’  She also advocates whizzing up peeled raw broad beans with grated Romano cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh mint, black pepper and a little garlic to make ‘a creamy emulsion’ that can be used as pasta sauce, a condiment for meat or merely spread on bread.

Jacques Médecin, a corrupt mayor of Nice who nevertheless wrote an authoritative book on Cuisine Niçoise, recommended the inclusion of ‘200g small broad beans’ in salade Niçoise. They should be, of course, be raw. You wouldn’t dare introduce them to boiling water after reading Médecin’s ardent injunction, ‘If you want to be a worthy exponent of Niçoise cookery, never, never, I beg you include boiled potato or any other boiled vegetable in your salade Niçoise.’

Sadly, the broad bean remains undervalued in Britain – except by those who grow broad beans in their gardens. Their enthusiasm can scarcely be overstated. In one of his published diaries, Alan Bennett describes a salad including home-grown broad beans: ‘so delicate and delicious they’re a different vegetable from the frozen variety and even the loose beans you get from a shop – so tasty that I find myself rationing them as I’m eating so I still have one or two left for my final mouthful.’

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall vigorously supports this view: ‘If I had to name my favourite vegetable of all the broad bean just might be it. When picked young and cooked lightly, these emerald-green niblets are exquisite: a little bit bitter, a little bit sweet. Lubricated with a lick of butter and piqued with pepper, they’re a veg treat like no other.’

This joyful appreciation is, however, by no means commonplace in this country. There can be a small but perceptible groan at Sunday lunch if broad beans appear on the table instead of much-loved peas. If they’ve been frozen, the distinctive character of young broad beans is lost and, even when fresh, we often allow them to grow too large and bland in their luxurious, velvet-lined pods.

Of course, the obvious solution is to start growing this sublime treat ourselves. Even the flower-obsessed British would relish the gorgeous blooms of the young broad bean, a plant that delivers a double gift. In her Vegetable Book, Jane Grigson noted that the white and purple flowers of broad beans once provided ‘a sweetness of spring round many villages.’ The 19th century rural poet John Clare wrote, ‘My love is as sweet as a bean field in blossom.’

Those of us who lack the space or inclination for horticulture must rummage for sprightly young pods at a good greengrocers. Their kindly habit of allowing us to select particularly tempting vegetables should produce a few memorable broad bean meals during their tantalisingly brief season. The peak is customarily June-July though Bennett’s ecstatic diary entry is for 12 August (admittedly his harvest was in North Yorkshire).

There is a tactic that can transforms even mature broad beans. This is the continental habit of removing their skins after cooking. Though at first it seems bit of a fag (slip your fingernail or the tip of a paring knife under the skin and squeeze the bean out), it is by no means arduous. (Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests it can be ‘soothing’ and ‘meditative’). In any case, the task pays rich dividends, transforming the commonplace into a luxury. In her book Flavours of Greece, Rosemary Barron explains that Greek cooks prefer to remove the skins of even young beans ‘to reveal the pretty shade of green within. Without their skins, broad beans are easier to digest and have a subtly different flavour.’

Even more than asparagus, young broad beans should be snapped up the instant you see them on sale. At their juvenile peak, they deserve elevation from their customary role as a side dish. Whether you have broad beans in a salad – Yotam Ottolenghi does a terrific one with avocado, radish, lemon and quinoa – or exploit their remarkable affinity with cheese, you will be enjoying the green essence of spring.

At the Soho landmark restaurant Quo Vadis, the food world’s favourite chef Jeremy Lee offers a starter combining broad beans (skinned of course), peas and cheese that goes down a storm. When I recently renewed acquaintance with this simple seasonal treat at a late supper in Quo Vadis, I was reminded just how delectable it is. You can make it from scratch in less than 10 minutes. Though Lee’s first rendition utilised Mary Holbrook’s goats’ milk cheese Tymsboro, he has since utilised a variety of cheeses with equal success. ‘Devon Blue works wonderfully well,’ Lee told me. ‘But Caerphilly has also been enjoyed. Cornish Yarg was a treat. Stilchelton is great. Berkswell is splendid.’

Jeremy Lee’s starter of cheese, broad beans, peas and mint

Cook 30g peas and 30g broad beans until tender. Skin and roughly chop the beans. Crush the peas with a fork. Combine peas and beans, then add 350g  cheese (see possibilities in final paragraph above) and mix, adding a handful of ripped mint leaves, a few spoonfuls of good olive oil, sea salt and ground pepper. Mix until a soft texture is achieved and serve with very thin slices of bread cooked crisp with olive oil in the oven.

Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean St, London W1D 3LL, tel 020 7437 9585 quovadissoho.co.uk