Monday, 4 May 2009

Broad beans – but no Chianti or liver

The first broad beans of the season were purchased on Good Friday in Borough Market. Well to be accurate, they were Spanish broad beans, imported: I have had no confirmed sightings of British beans yet, but it won't be long. And basking in the glow of the pleasure that the sighting of the first Jersey Royals of the year had created, I bought some anyway.

More were selected from Broadway Market yesterday: I suspect they're also Spanish, but they were in a plain box so I couldn't tell and will thus not reproach myself too much for such an unenvironmental act.

I remember picking fresh broad beans many years ago. It was during one of the peculiar family 'holidays' that we endured at the time. Clergy of my father's denomination were not particularly well paid, and he combined that with a talent for being able to let money trickle through his fingers like sand. Cars and booze accounted for quite a bit, I imagine. But it meant, after my maternal grandfather had died and his widow moved back to share a house with her two sisters in St Helens, we often went without an annual holiday, having no further relatives to stay with.

But on at least three occasions that I can recall, we ended up being loaned the use of a cottage for a fortnight by some well-to-do acquaintance of my father (probably a booze buddy). The idea was, of course, that it was simply essential to "get away". Thus at least one 'holiday' was spent in Todmorden, a small town on the Pennines.

It's bleak and there's bugger all to do there. We were in a cottage right up on the hills. For at least part of the holiday in question, my father did his being-ill routine.

He'd had massive surgery in the 1950s, before I was born. Around 10 years later, he started to become ill – he'd get home at night, from whatever meeting or pastoral visiting he'd been doing, and effectively collapse as soon as he got through the door. My mother would have to haul him up to bed. He'd be flailing around like the most drunken drunk you can imagine, speech slurred to total meaninglessness.

My sister, three years my junior, would lie in her cot and cry. I'd lie in my bed, rigid with something that I cannot find words for. Fear? I don't know that I felt personally threatened by it, but I hated it – it was simply horrible. I'd get up sometimes and attempt to quieten my sister. But it doesn't surprise me, looking back on it, that she later needed a night light to be able to sleep. The darkness was when those awful disturbances would come.

It was some years before doctors eventually worked out what the problem was – all the brain scans, all the tests: and all they eventually needed to do was actually look at his medical history and do a simple blood test. He had pernicious anemia and needs injections once every few weeks.

But while they were still trying to fathom such matters, one imbecile prescribed him barbiturates: Seconal. He got rather fond of it. Black and orange capsules. He'd have them hidden in his study and, when he was out, my mother would have me help her search for them. Then she'd carefully unscrew them, empty the things, replace the drug with sugar and put them back where we'd found them.

Of course, he wasn't refraining from booze at this stage. Or driving. Goodness knows how he didn't smash the car up (more than he did) or do more damage to himself or anyone else. In the end, a prang saw him sent to a different doctor, who worked out what was wrong – the medical history and the blood test did the job.

But on that holiday in Todmorden, he'd obviously got himself some Seconal, was drugged up, was angry and aggressive. We needed food, though, so he was insisting that he'd drive us all into the actual town. My mother had hidden his car keys and told me I'd have to go. He was screaming and threatening, both my mother and me. Ranting and raving.

My little mission was to get the bus and go into the town and get the food my mother needed.

That was Todmorden. On another of these magnificent holidays, we ended up in Ravenglass on the northwest coast. Father heard horror stories from local fishermen (while in the pub) about what they'd fished out of the nearby sea – this wasn't far from Sellafield nuclear power station – and we were banned from going in the water.

I don't recall any particular outbursts from that holiday, but there was a vast kitchen garden, with dead moles hung up on the wire fence around it. We were able to pick and eat what we wanted and that's where I remember picking peas and runner beans and tomatoes – and broad beans.

They're known as fava beans in the US – the sort that Hannibal Lecter might consider an apt accompaniment to human liver, together with a good Chianti, of course. I can't say I've tried them that way ...

They are, apparently, the bean of Jack and his stalk; the bean in 'full of beans' and 'spilling the beans'. And they are darned tasty and an absolute joy in summer. You need to buy about double, because the pods are quite large and weighty.

It's a short summer season and, unfortunately, a lot of Brits don't eat them, so many ordinary greengrocers don't carry them. There was also a day, a few years ago, when I spotted some on a stall in Bethnal Green, but then refused to buy any. I had asked the stallholder for 500g of his lovely broad beans, but he'd refused, saying that he'd only serve people if they asked in old, imperial measurements. He was actually breaking the law, but doubtless considered himself to be one of those pathetic 'metric martyrs'. He didn't get my trade.

I'd have actually had difficulty ordering in anything other than metric. When I started school, we were taught imperial measurement – and then one week we were suddenly taught metric measurement. But the British being the British, we have never actually put a date on stopping using the former, so this crazy duel situation has continued.

Personally, I'd never really needed much in the way of measurements – until I started cooking around eight years ago. Then, needing kitchen scales and opting for a set of old fashioned-styles ones, I had to make a decision – what weights to buy for them: metric or imperial. It seemed ridiculous to opt for anything other than metric – and that's now the only way in which I can think when it comes to weight.

But I'm getting sidetracked again.

Pod your broad beans. Put some boiling water in a pan and, when it's bubbling merrily away, pop the beans in. If they're very small (the size of your thumbnail or smaller) they'll only need three minutes. Give them four or five minutes if the beans are larger or older.

Drain and then let them cool a little. You can eat the skins, but it's worth the slight hassle to remove them. Simply take a bean, nick one end of it between your fingernails, and squeeze gentely. What pops forth is a beautiful little emerald.

There are many ways to use them. They're lovely in salads – brilliant with a good, salty feta or lardons of bacon, fried to a really crispy state. Some years ago, I saw the latter done on the Two Fat Ladies cookery programme. I think it was the late Jennifer Patterson who cooked it: bacon and broad beans, topped with a hard-boiled egg that was pressed through a sieve onto the dish.

Taking that on board, I've just had some. Cooked as above, and then popped out onto a plate with some cooked fine beans, some diced Cantaloupe melon, thinly sliced celery heart and some wonderful Paleta Iberico (a wafer thin Spanish ham, matured for at least 20 months), and all dressed with a light mix of virgin oil, orange juice and black pepper. The Queen B decided that the jamon was good too – indeed, she assumed it was really meant for her and was really quite piqued at being denied.

But whether you eat them with ham or bacon, or feta, don't forget broad beans – they're well worth enjoying for the entirety of their short summer season.


  1. Omigosh ~ I don't know which part of this one I enjoyed reding the most. Well, 'enjoyed' may not tbe the word I'm looking for. Really, Syb, I'd pay money to read your musings. Like if you had a newspaper column or something?

    Do folks still write columns for newspapers?

    Still applauding

  2. I loved this story too. You have an interesting life history. I have never had broad beans and now I want to try them!

  3. Sow your Broad Beans in October, and you can be picking them at the end of April. They are my favourite vegetable. Pick them ultra small and you can slice them raw, pod and all into salads.