Spring in Tuscany: Fresh Fava Beans & Pecorino Cheese
Updated: May 28, 2022
Spring in Tuscany means fresh fava beans! Many people think immediately of Hannibal Lecter's famous line from Silence of the Lambs, but I think of a nice pairing with fresh pecorino cheese and -- YES -- a nice Chianti. 🙂
In Tuscany they're called baccelli, which is the general term for "pea pod", and they appear in the markets around March/April along with fresh peas.
Fava beans are much bigger than the peas, and their pod is thicker, more fleshy, with a soft fuzzy interior (peas on the left, fava beans on the right):
You can see how much bigger the fava beans are compared to the peas:
Of course both fresh beans and peas are time-consuming as you have to remove them all by hand, and it's often recommended to remove the soft fava center from the outer casing (which can be a bit bitter and hard to digest), which adds even more time in the kitchen.
In Tuscany, however, they love eating them raw with some fresh pecorino cheese.
The term pecorino refers to cheese made from sheep's milk (pecora is sheep in Italian) and you can get many kinds here, from fresco (young) to semi-staggionato (medium aged) to staggionato (aged). And the aging can be done in a variety of ways: wrapped in hay, wrapped in grape skins after pressing, dotted with truffles, or encased in peppers.
The aged cheese has a much richer taste and is drier, while the fresh cheese may be only a few months old and is fairly soft, so your choice of cheese is important!
But back to the fava beans...
I recently saw a recipe that called for the soft, semi-cooked inner part of the bean so I decided to try it. My initial purchase of 1.5 kg (~3 lbs) of fava beans left me with ~2 cups of beans.
First I dropped them into boiling water for two minutes, then plunged them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking (it was mesmerizing to watch them slowly bob around the ice water and turn a ghostly white):
Then you take each bean and poke a small hole in the shell and squeeze out the tiny soft kernel inside. In the end I had about one cup of very tender, green beans. Very tasty, but not sure about the labor involved! Let's say it's the perfect activity for your next pandemic lockdown. 😄
The recipe (from the New York Times, if you can access that here) called for fava beans, celery and fennel topped with a fresh shallot and lemon dressing with a ball of burrata cheese. It was good but the shallot overpowered all of those tender beans, so that's my two cents. 😉
A few more things about pecorino cheese while I'm here: both the fresh and aged varieties are great drizzled with honey. The cheese below is "semi-aged" and you can see it's a bit firmer than the super-fresh type but not yet crumbly.
You find pecorino cheese all over Italy (as well as caprino, which is goat cheese), though they differ region to region. Pecorino Romano, for example, is well-known in the U.S. as a hard cheese to grate over pasta, which you would rarely do with Tuscan pecorino.
You often see flocks of sheep as you travel through Tuscany, and -- fun fact! -- many of the shepherds are from Sardinia! Post-WWII Tuscany had been ravaged by the war and many men left to find work in the cities, so the desperate regions offered land to anyone who could work it. The offer was snapped up by Sardinians, who had an even harder life on their rugged island, so "thanks largely to the Sardinians’ tenacity and determination, today a thriving Tuscan cheese making industry exists... Nine times out of ten, if you find a quintessential Sardinian surname like Bussu, Puddu, or Putzulu, they came to Tuscany as shepherds during this great diaspora." [that's from a great little article on cheese here]
I encourage you to try some fresh fava beans and a nice Chianti (maybe not as you re-watch Silence of the Lambs 😉), and I'll leave you with these spectacular images of what's happening outside right now. Bright Easter pinks, glorious waving yellows, and bright blue skies are making Tuscany look like a technicolor dream, and I am filled with love for this place. Come visit anytime and I'll show you around!
In the meantime, if you'd like to support my cheese research you can toss a few coins into my Sardinian shepherd's pouch (ie, "the tip jar" -- click here). And I'll see you next time!