If there is one single food family that shows off the breadth and extent of the collective Greek culinary imagination, it has to be the humble legume. Together with wheat, beans of all kinds, along with lentils, chickpeas and split peas, form the very foundation of the Greek diet and have done so since Neolithic times. Over the centuries, let alone the millennia, country cooks devised dozens of ways of preparing them. They were such a constant presence on the dinner table, even before there were tables, that they had to be made palatable. For let’s face it, a steady regime of unseasoned or unsauced beans or lentils could lead to a family mutiny.
But properly cooked, they are comfort food, as well as super good for us, being an excellent source of protein, fiber and iron, as well as other essential minerals. Some scholars maintain that the poor in ancient Athens survived and thrived on a diet consisting almost exclusively of lentils, yet still managed to power the triremes that crisscrossed the Aegean almost as quickly as today’s caïques.
Funnily enough, the word phaseolus, the ancient Greek word for bean (modern fasoli) and the botanical name for the genus of New World legumes, actually and rather poetically refers to the boat-like shape of the pod. Nowadays, the distinction between Old World legumes, like lentils, chickpeas, fava beans (koukia in Greek) and those of the Americas, like cannellini, kidney and lima beans, has blurred after centuries of cultivation on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Greece, despite its association with hard times, war and occupation, when people considered themselves lucky to have a bowl of watery bean broth, fasolada – rich in carrots, celery, onions, tomato and virgin olive oil – is often cited as the country’s most emblematic national dish. And, cucina povera or not, most families, regardless of income, have a pot of lentils, chickpeas or beans simmering on the stove or in the oven at least once a week during the winter. Salads with black-eyed peas, and dips like fava, made with split yellow peas (not the bean of the same name), are ever-popular taverna staples year-round.
The prime growing area for beans is in the north of Greece, specifically at relatively high altitudes (around 800 m) and cool temperatures and in the presence of a lake. Some of them have even won a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) distinction from the EU, in recognition of the special characteristics these places confer. The coldest district in Greece, Kato Nevrokopi, boasts two such beans, giant elephant beans and common medium beans, while Florina, Kastoria and Prespes also have gigantes and fasolia of note.
When you go to Prespes, the lake district shared by Albania and Macedonia (the former Yugoslav republic) and beloved by bird-watchers, the first thing that meets the eye is not the flat expanse of water or its flocks of Dalmatian pelicans, but rather the neat rows of beans growing on thousands of teepee-like structures that stretch for miles in every direction. Here the bean is so venerated that, instead of souvenirs, vendors sell neatly packaged bags of beans at key bird-watching locations: giant beans and even larger elephant beans, in white and purply black; red, white, brown, pink and white; small and medium beans; and even jars of bean glyko, a syrupy spoon sweet! Curiously, black giant beans taste somewhat like chestnuts.
Recently, though, beans from another area have been appearing on supermarket shelves and farmers’ markets, this time the northern Peloponnese. Like Prespes and Kastoria, Feneos is high and near a lake, Doxa (albeit a man-made one), and the small Fasolia Vanilies Feneou (P. vulgaris), which grows in the bed of an older lake drained a century ago, was classified as PGI in 2012. The name doesn’t begin to convey its delicate flavor.
Although we haven’t been aware of Feneos beans for long, it seems their tradition is rooted in mythology. As one website relates, “[P]ulses were gifts from the goddess Demeter to the inhabitants of Feneos because they offered her hospitality when she was searching for her daughter Persephone, who had been abducted by Hades. Hades tried to drag her down to the Underworld through the depths of Lake Feneos. The people of Feneos were therefore the first to eat pulses and perhaps that is why their beans became famous as the best-tasting beans.”
You may take this with a grain of salt, but in November we discovered a brand, Agroktima (Farm) Kourousia, in our local organic farmers market that specializes in beans from Feneos, and they have been a revelation, cooking far faster and with far more flavor than any we’ve tasted up to now. Run by two friends in their 30s, Kostas, who does the farming, and Spyros, who’s responsible for sales, the operation started about seven years ago.
We first noticed Spyros’s stand because it displayed a product we’d never seen before, black “beluga” lentils. Intrigued, we succumbed to Spyros’s assurances that we would not be disappointed, and he was right. They’re not called the caviar of lentils for nothing. A friend’s face lit up as she sipped her soup: “They taste like lentils used to when I was a child!” Since then, we’ve learned to trust him. He says he tells no lies, and so far we believe him. After all, he and Kostas turned to the land because they “wanted to deal with something pure.”
Next we’ll try his fava from Feneos, which is acquiring a reputation that rivals that from Santorini. The latter costs much more than ordinary brands, but is nutty and creamy at the same time and has a well-earned PGI status.
Apart from fasolada, seasoned with hot pepper in Macedonia or with orange peel in Crete, another popular bean dish is gigantes sto fourno, baked giant or elephant beans, which could not be more different than the Boston variety. Combined with onions and/or leeks, celery, Florina (sweet) red peppers, garlic and chopped tomato, they are succulent with a crunchy topping. Crumbled feta or slices of spicy sausage are also common additions.
Beyond casseroles, stews and soups that often pair legumes with greens, grains or pasta for extra nutrition and flavor, Greek housewives frequently make fritters from beans, fava and chickpeas and even occasionally skewer giant beans and grill or deep-fry them. Sometimes they appear transformed in high-class restaurants like Selene on Santorini or Varoulko in Mikrolimano, where fava, for example, becomes a delicacy served in a shot glass, topped with capers, sun-dried tomatoes or caramelized onions.
Generally speaking, though, you’re almost guaranteed to find bean and legume dishes on the menus in Athens mageiria, that vanishing breed of no-frills eateries that serve “home-cooked” meals at low prices, often for takeout. A few of our favorite places to eat legumes locally are listed below. Otherwise, when in Sifnos, look for slow-baked chickpeas and fritters, tasty lentils from Englouvi when in Lefkada, and black-eyed pea stews and salads when in the Peloponnese.
(Diporto photo by Manteau Stam; all other photos by Diana Farr Louis)
Kourousia Farm organic beans and grains can be found at the organic farmers’ markets of Kifisia, Ilioupoli, Geraka, Ilion, Korydallos and Kaisariani. Spyros speaks English. Other reputable brands are the Alpha Beta supermarket series of legumes from specific areas and organic or environmentally sustainable Arosis products, whose motto is “superfoods through the centuries.”