An Ancient Legume, Revisited

Braised capers are an ideal topping for the local fava, the trademark dish of Santorini. Today Santorini Fava is served as a meze at taverns throughout Greece, usually prepared with mashed, imported yellow split peas (dal), dressed simply with fruity olive oil, topped with sliced onions and dried Greek oregano.

In the old days, though, fava was made from dried fava beans and/or from an indigenous, ancient legume, a variant of Lathyrus sativus (chickling vetch or grass pea), called cicerchia in Italian and almorta in Spanish.

Legumes such as Grass pea, and fava (broad) beans were planted in alternate years, instead of barley or other cereals, in many parts of Greece, especially on the islands where the soil is often very poor. My neighbor, Zenovia Stefa, told me that in the small gardens and terraces around Otzias, where we live, her late father used to plant grass peas (Lathyrus sativus), the legume for which the generic name ‘fava’ is used throughout Greece. This primitive, drought-resistant pea “originated from the Balkan Peninsula in the early Neolithic age.  It may have been the first domesticated crop in Europe around 6000 BCE,” according to Feedipedia.

Zenovia told me that she and her siblings helped harvest and separate the peas from the pods, after the stalks had been threshed on the stone-paved floor, much like barley.  The discarded stalks and peelings were a much-appreciated feed for sheep and goats during the dry, summer months, when fresh grass is not available.  Hand stone mills were used to grind off the peas’ hard skins, splitting them, so that after a brief cooking they would be easily mushed into the yellow purée also called ‘fava’, a poor islanders’ staple since antiquity. This ancient legume – traces of which have been found in Santorini’s Bronze Age settlement, Akrotiri – has sustained countless generations of poor peasants throughout the Mediterranean in times of famine. Long before Santorini became one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations it was one of Greece’s most destitute islands.  Poor on natural resources and badly exposed to the harsh winds of the Aegean, Santorini’s impoverished but ingenious inhabitants survived on whatever they could forage or cultivate in small terraced gardens on steep rocky hills.

Capers were plentiful, so they were often treated like any other foraged green, elevated from a flavoring to the principal ingredient of a dish:  large, meaty capers were braised with plenty of onions and olive oil to make a frugal but hearty meal, consumed with bread or paximadia — hard barley rusks, or make a delicious topping for fava. (see how I pickle capers and caper shoots).

Grass pea is used mainly as animal feed today, but recently local farmers on Santorini have resumed the cultivation of a variety of the ancient legume for human consumption, and it is now sold in gourmet stores. Don’t let looks deceive you.  Although the dishes prepared with lathyrus and dal look the same, the taste of fava made with the heirloom legume has an infinitely more earthy and complex flavor than the one made with dal.

Inspired chef Dimitris Mavrakis, in Kritamon, his wonderful restaurant in Archanes, Crete, makes fava with a combination of legumes: dried fava beans, split peas and some lentils, and the flavor of the pureed beans is wonderful, even without any topping.

RECIPE: Santorini Fava with Caramelized Onions and Capers




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