The virtues of the humble field bean

This week I would like to give a shout out to an unsung hero, the field bean. Field beans (Vicia faba) are exactly the same species as broad beans, but they produce smaller pods with smaller beans but in much greater numbers. I find them a very dependable and tasty crop to grow at home.

You may have dabbled with them as a green manure. They are pretty reliable in this respect, as they are able to germinate at fairly low temperatures and are good at fixing nitrogen. If you want them to add nutrients to the soil, you do need to cut them down before they start flowering and forming beans.

You may have also seen large swathes of them growing in fields, and assumed that they were destined for animal feed. In fact, there is a significant market for exporting them to North Africa and the Middle East where they are used to make Fule Medames, a tasty stew with the addition of garlic, parsley and cumin, vegetables, and other spices. They are also used as an alternative to chickpeas to make falafel.

There are a number of advantages to growing field beans. If you want to grow them over the winter, they are more tolerant of the cold than broad beans, so can be guaranteed to survive the coldest of winters. I have also found that they produce bigger quantities than broad beans. Ours have produced large crops this year, and I sowed them quite late, so they are still producing. The only slight downside, is, as the beans are smaller, you have to shell more pods than broad beans to get an equivalent quantity – not so good for somebody in a hurry in the kitchen.

If you pick them early, before the beans start to dry out, they are very sweet and tasty. I like to stir fry them with garlic and add some lemon juice. This variety pictured above is Fuego, which is prized for its flavour, and a smooth texture. I actually planted them from a bag of beans meant for cooking from Hodmedods, but they assured me of which variety it was.

If you have a bit more space, you could always set aside some for drying. The pods will turn dark brown as you leave them to dry on the plants. The beans make a good alternative to chickpeas to use in curries or make hummus. I have tried growing chickpeas outside in the UK, and they will grow outside here, but the amounts you get are pretty small; field beans are definitely happier and more productive in our climate.

More about Anton...
Anton is a Knowledge Officer at Garden Organic, where he has worked for 16 years. He is looking forward to writing a series of blogs on how to garden using little resources.

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