In northern Europe we are still caught in the depth of winter, but as soon as you pass the Alps signs of spring shoot up and multiply as you go south. The grass seems greener in a purely literal sense, water flows faster in the rivers and cute white flowers adorn the apple trees. Further south, forsythia and mimosa blossom with such excessive exuberance that I – for one – have had my share of yellow flowers for the rest of the year, and pink peach blossoms make part of the Tavoliere look as if it has been covered in beetroot salad. Touring Italy from north to south in the spring time leaves splashes of psychedelic colour on the inside of your eyelids.
Still, it is not the bright vivid colours that constitute the strongest sign of spring in my book, but a rather plain looking bean that is one of the first crops to hit markets and restaurants after a long winter and tastes delicious when eaten fresh from the pod. Broad beans or fave are so easy to cultivate that they lost their attraction in Scandinavia, once people could afford to buy more exotic, imported vegetables, but in Italy and in other countries around the Mediterranean they are highly appreciated.
I still remember the first time a limp, hunchbacked waiter at a popular restaurant in Rimini produced a handful of bright green bean pods from his pocket and threw them on the table along with a slice of pecorino and a drop of the local olive oil. The surprise of opening a long, lumpy bean pod and finding a string of green kidney shaped beans packed in soft cottonwool was pure magic. And the feeling magnified when you started eating the beans that taste like a cross between sweet peas and bitter rocket.
Fresh fave are so much more refreshing that the porrigde prepared from dried fave in southern Italy, where housewives spend hours on plastic chairs outside their houses while shelling fave beans. In fact, their use of fave resembles the Egyptian Ful Medames served the Italian way with chicory rocket salad, but this is an acquired taste you have to be south Italian to really appreciate. Whereas the fresh, crispy and slightly bitter green beans are truely delicious as a pure taste of spring.