As hungry Italians at the Fava Bean Festival line up in a farm in the Roman countryside to order fava and pecorino cheese, fava and porchetta, cream of fava over pasta or plain brown bags full of of fresh fava, the manager of a The neighboring garden talks about the witch-fingered legume with fear.
“We looked for them and tore them up,” said Francesco Urso, 72, pointing to a sign that read “Fava planting is prohibited.” The leathery green pods bulging with indented oval beans can be delicious, good for the soil and a beloved Roman springtime snack, Mr. Urso said, but the issue is life or death.
“Favism,” he said.
While many Romans celebrate the upcoming May fava season and the arrival of spring with fava-heavy picnics outside the city walls, those who suffer from favism live in fear. For those with blood diseases – which Lucio Luzzatto, a leading scientist in the field, which has spread throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East because it provides protection against malaria – exposure to fava beans can be causes acute hemolytic anemia; causes jaundice; enlargement of the spleen; and premature heart failure and death.
Around Rome at this time of year, warning signs read “This place serves fresh fava” in restaurants and markets. The near-death experiences of celebrities affected by favism have gone viral. “During fava season, be careful,” pleaded Ginevra Pisani, a television starlet who described her social media feed as turning “totally yellow, green” and fainting as her “red blood cells bloody suicide.”
“And I thought they were good for you, these favas,” he added bitterly.
Many cities in Italy have introduced ordinances that prohibit the cultivation of fava beans within hundreds of meters of schools or the homes of the vulnerable, as some who suffer from favism say that the only A whiff of the subtle fava pollen can trigger an attack.
Sardinia, the southern Italian island where about 10 percent of the population has favism, with the number hitting 13 percent in the south, has developed some remedies over the years.
“To heal me when I was little, they laid me down and put me on my face with cow shit,” said Beatrice Brundu, 78, from the small Sardinian town of Perdasdefogu. “And it healed me. Now, they just give me pills.”
But despite the spread of the disease, fava beans are unavoidable throughout Italy, especially in Rome in May. They tangle with fresh market boxes, transform dishes full of guanciale, slurp up the beloved vignarola fresh vegetable stew. (“It’s May 1,” announced a waiter at Osteria la Gensola in Rome, “we have rigatoni alla vignarola.”) They, too, according to the city government’s Fava and Pecorino page, are “tied to the ancient practice of commemoration . of the dead.”
However, in May, the fava bean, sprouting green, is a sign of life.
At the Roman trattoria Da Felice, diners order pasta with fava beans, peas and guanciale in a sun-drenched wine while Cesare Murtas, a manager from Sardinia, looks on next to front door of the beware-of-fava-beans sign. “My son has it,” said Mr. Murtas, 52, referring to the disease. He said he taught his son since childhood to stay away from beans. “He wears dog tags that say he has favism in case he gets into a car accident.”
Around the corner from Checchino, another venerable Roman institution with a warning on the door, owner Francesco Mariani, 62, said he used to work as a chef from Sardinia with favism. “He can’t even touch it,” she said of the beans. “Someone else should cook those dishes.”
But he finds the idea of not offering fava in May ridiculous, and argues that the whole culture of allergies and intolerances is out of control, that people expect decontamination efforts at the level in the lab for gluten, lactose and beans.
“Don’t go to a Roman restaurant,” he said. “Get some sushi.”
Fava, one of the oldest cultivated crops dating back to at least 6,000 BC, has long been a source of protein and concern throughout the region.
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, father of the a² + b² = c² theorem, considered fava to be a symbol of death. It is said that he preferred to risk death in the face of his enemies than to run through a field of fava. His cult of vegetarian geometry enthusiasts believe that the fava bean holds the souls of the dead, or that their hollow stems provide an elevator service from Hades.
Ancient writers also suggested that they disliked fava because it resembled the genitalia, or a fetus, or because it caused flatulence, which drained the breath of life. Or, as Scientific American puts it, because they “believe that a chewed bean smells like the blood of a murder victim when left in the sun.”
In the Middle Ages, Sicilians affected by drought prayed to Saint Joseph for rain and found salvation from hunger in fava beans, which are still placed on church altars and worshiped with bread in the form of “beans of the dead” on All Souls Day. .
The ancient Romans considered fava beans so connected to death and decay that some priests would not touch them, and they were a mainstay on the funerary feast menu. For decades, tipsy Romans sang of “Fiori Trasteverini,” how everything in “Roma bella” was for sale, including St. Peter’s, the sky and the air, “but the Roman fava we can give.”
The hundreds of Romans at the fava festival on Sunday, in Castel di Leva, knew what they wanted. Green mountains of discarded fava pods piled high on wooden tables like science-fair volcanoes. While the Romans were digging and sucking the seeds, there was no sign of warning at the fair. “It’s a Fava Festival,” said Francesco Galli, 47, the organizer of the event. “If you’re allergic, maybe don’t come.”
On a table, Carmelina Antonini, 74, loaded the empty pods into her bag. “There’s nothing to throw away,” she said, telling her skeptical husband and friends that she would cook them and then fry them in garlic and hot peppers.
He and his friends compare notes about people they know who have favism (“he got an anaphylactic shock”), and he remembers that it once caused dismissal from military service.
“Why?” asked her friend Emilia Cucci, 77, “because the army is picking fava beans?”
Ms. then recalled. Cucci recounted a traumatic incident when he was served fava beans — meant to be soft and buttery — that instead were “hard and a little like a pebble,” leading him to throw them in protest.
Recently, he said, that although there is no favism, he worries that he suffers from some other mysterious allergy that leads him to “split four, five, six times.”
“Who knows?” ignored by her husband.
“I’m talking,” he said. “Maybe the husband.”
A few yards away, Sara Lauti, 29, a fava vendor, stands behind the piled pods, announcing how they are “super fresh, picked this morning.” He puts them in brown bags for customers and says no one suffering from favism cares to come to him.
“Their red globules are almost bursting,” he said.
Paola Romani, 59, nodded in agreement.
“It’s a nasty disease – it takes you by the throat,” he said. Then he opened a pod, popped the seeds into his mouth and bought a bag to go with his brick of pecorino. “May,” he said with a frown, “fava.”
Gaia Pianigiani contributed to the report.