Spring is a beautiful time of year here and the hillsides are ablaze with colour and the swallows and bee-eaters have returned. Our layered beds are planted, our fingers are crossed and we’re hopeful of some kind of harvest.
This is our first year of determined growing efforts and we have bought/sowed one of almost every edible species going in order to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. It’s like the Noah’s Ark of gardening. Luckily, trees, plants and seeds are incredibly cheap in Portugal and so this feels possible without any huge financial risk. Our newly planted ‘vineyard’ (it is a patch of ground with vines in it, therefore it is a vineyard) cost €24 for 12 vines. They have more than paid for themselves already through the joy and anticipation we have had in peering closely at this pile of sticks protruding from the earth all winter pining desperately for a sign that reassures us that we are not the laughing stock of the market for having paid €24 for someone’s kindling pile. And that we are in fact, the Algarve’s answer to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in the wine-making department (they make their own, but with considerably more staff, I suspect). Over the past few weeks our devotion has been rewarded and they all have sprouted.
Broad beans have been the great success of early spring. We have observed that these are the crop do dia of rural Portugal and wondered why. My memories of broad beans are of pale minority members of a bag of frozen mixed vegetables thrown in a pan and boiled to death by my well meaning mother and the habits of 1970s cooking. To be honest, I only grew them because judging by their proliferation round here, they seemed like a sure fire success and I’m kind of desperate like that. I didn’t really expect to like them. Yet again, I was wrong.
We know now why they are so common: they are incredibly easy to grow and they taste amazing. Given the poverty in rural Portuguese communities in the past and to some extent in the present day, it is easy to understand why a twice a year, non-irrigated food source would become almost a national dish. From our perspective, they grow quickly, strongly and look like an impressive feat of garden expertise with zero effort. You get to see how the Jack and the Beanstalk tale originated when you see how tall they get in such a short space of time.
There are essentially two bean growing seasons in the Algarve – one sowing takes place at the arrival of the rains in the Autumn with a harvest around February and the second sowing goes in around February with a harvest in May before the heat hits. They don’t require watering or any assistance whatsoever. As an added bonus, the impatient gardener doesn’t even have to wait for the beans to reach maturity before reaping some free food from the plants: you can eat the plant itself. It is recommend by some that picking off the top shoots of the plants after flowering will stop the plant using its energy for leaf growth and instead focus it on bean growth, which makes sense to me. The tips are a pale, grey-green colour, but once wilted in a pan with a tiny amount of water they turn a deep and vibrant green and make a fine soup or addition to an omelette. Probably they could make a substitute for any recipe involving spinach or spring greens.
And if you end up with too many in your veg patch, you can always dry them and get fava beans, which should keep Hannibal Lecter happy should he ever pay a visit.
Courgette, Broad Bean and Broad Bean Tip Soup
Makes 2 large bowls or 4 small bowls
Slug of olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large courgette, chopped
500g fresh broad beans in their pods (less if already de-podded). I leave the little jackets on, but if you prefer a creamier taste, take ‘em off
3 handfuls broad bean tips
1 litre stock – I used some boiled up roast chicken bones to make the stock but a stock cube of any variety will do
Slug of vermouth or white wine (optional)
Heat the oil in a pan, gently cook the onion for 5 minutes, then add all remaining vegetables and cook for 10 minutes. Add stock and wine if using and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Leave to cool for a few minutes before blending – either until completely smooth or leaving a few lumps for texture. Adjust liquid if required.
Serve with warm bread and some creamy cheese.