‘Fava’ and the History of the Humble Lathyrus Pea

Santorini Fava is served as a meze at taverns throughout Greece and few suspect its long history and roots…

A somewhat spectacular variation of the common dish we offered at the 2019 Oxford Symposium Dinner we cooked with chef Michael Costa. He preferred a perfectly smooth fava puree, and added basil leaves to my chopped scallions, herbs, and bitter greens, which made it perfect!  I also like to top fava with sweet-wine-braised capers and onions, a traditional Santorini condiment.

 

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.

 

Besides barley, the basic grain cultivated on most Cycladic islands, on alternate years, islanders used to plant grass peas –a variant of Lathyrus sativus – chickling vetch or grass pea, cicerchia in Italian and almorta in Spanish–a 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, ” as mentions Feedipedia.  

 

Hand stone mills were used until recently 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. Anya Anastasia Sarpaki writes that a unique archaeo-botanical material of “crops in the latest stage just before consumption,” was identified among the archaeological finds at Akrotiri, the Bronze Age settlement on Santorini (Thera). It “includes split legumes, bulgur-type cracked barley, and flour.”  Chickling vetch is used mainly as animal feed today, but recently local farmers on Santorini and on some parts of Central Greece have resumed its cultivation for human consumption, and the split lathyrus 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 (yellow split peas).

 

Although fava is now synonymous with the popular meze, in the old days it was mostly cooked as yet another legume, like the red lentils in Turkey and the Middle East. I remember the yellow-split-pea fava soup I was forced to eat in my childhood, not my favorite winter dish, unlike lentils and beans. I confess I have not tried to make it again, since.   

Capers were also plentiful on Santorini and all the islands, 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. 

 

Santorini Fava is served as a meze at taverns throughout Greece, often dressed simply with fruity olive oil, topped with sliced onions and dried Greek oregano. A somewhat spectacular variation of the humble dish  we prepared for the 2019 Oxford Symposium Dinner we cooked with chef Michael Costa. He preferred a perfectly smooth fava puree, and added some basil leaves to my chopped scallions, herbs, and bitter greens, which made it perfect!  I very much like to top fava  with sweet-wine-braised capers and onions, a traditional Santorini condiment; choose one of the two topping I suggest, and enjoy!

 

RECIPE: Santorini Fava with Two Toppings

 

 

 

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