If there is one thing I can be sure of it is that somewhere – a second floor borwnstone apartment in Brooklyn, a clapboard craftsman cottage in San Francisco, a white washed home in Ostuni - there is a tablespoon, or perhaps a couple healthy glugs, of olive oil warming in the bottom of a pan, waiting patiently for it’s dinner companions to be stirred in. That earthy sweet scent that slips out of the pan just as the olive oil is getting hot, but before you’ve added any vegetables, is one of my favorite kitchen moments. More often than not that smell whips me out of my chopping trance and reminds me that I have hot oil on the stove and that I need to stop staring at my neighbors across the way, wondering what they are eating for dinner, and get back to chopping the onions.
With all the olive trees in Apulia you would expect the air to smell like olive oil just before the onions are added, but it doesn't. (More often than not it smelt like burning olive branches. The trees are trimmed, and the branches burned, to ensure healthy growth in the season ahead, and sadly burning olive tree branches do not smell like hot olive oil in the bottom of a well seasoned dutch oven). There are some sixty million olive trees in Apulia, and a large percentage of those are trees are over 400 years old and some even three times that old. Olive trees are their schtick, like orange trees in Florida, except that the olive trees have been there for centuries, for millennia even, for so long that it is hard to think about just how long. There are a natures answer to the Pantheon.
The blanket of olive trees over the landscape was most apparent from the hill town of Ostuni. Ostuni, also known as Città Bianca, is perched on a hill eight miles inland from the Adriatic and from it's privileged perch you can watch the olive trees spread over the flat, arid, earth, and seemingly drop into the sea.
Ostuni was our favorite hill town in Apulia. We loved the warren of white buildings and the passageways that rambled willy-nilly between them. We loved the restaurant carved into the hillside and their menu full of simple Apulian food. We loved the cafe near the cathedral where we spent the pre dinner hours on a rainy night with a bottle of white wine. And we loved happening upon paths we hadn't walked, steps we hadn't climbed and tucked away views down to the sea that we hadn't yet seen.
Somewhere in the blanket of olive trees between Ostuni and the sea, there is a Masseria (a traditional farm estate) called Masseria Il Frantoio, and at Il Frantoio there is a cozy dining room (where we ate the best meal of our lives) run by a man named Armando, Armando who thought we were German and told us about the "Fava Bohnen" in our first course. I can't think about fava beans now without saying silently to my self "fava BOHnen."
Thankfully there is a stall at the farmer's market that specializes in Italian produce. I bought half a kilo on Wednesday and then another kilo this past Saturday and Zach and I set to work shucking them on Sunday. Fava beans, while not an ingredient for a quick meal, are a fun weekend project. They take time, but it is a relaxing, mediative type of time. You have to strip the beans from their pods, parboil the beans and then remove the tough light green shell that is hiding the bright green bean. It is a really satisfying process, grabbing the end of the pod and pulling off the thins strips that run along the edges, running your finger in the space left by the strip like your opening a letter, revealing the plump beans, sheathing them out of the pod by pushing your thumb down the furry middle, and then dumping them in the bowl where they will wait to be boiled. And then the process starts again with the boiled pods, using your nail to slice the skin and the forefinger and thumb of your other hand to pinch the beans out of their protective coating.
The gnarled and twisted trucks of olive trees will be one of the visual memories I will carry with me from our trip. The trees twist, and lean, and sometimes reach down their trunks and branches to the earth for support. I couldn't help but think about how they harvest all the olives as we drove along roads that ran between olive groves. I knew they couldn't possibly pick all the olives, that would be insane, so I eventually asked and we found out that a net is hung from the bottom limbs and a vibrating/shaking machine is used to shake all of the olives out of the tree. Still it must take months for all of the olives to be harvested.
I also couldn't help but think about how wonderful it would be to buy a piece of land strewn with ancient olive trees. And on that piece of land there would be an old Masseria and I could plant a kitchen garden....and keep dreaming....
Fava Bohnen and olive oil make a wonderful pair. You can pour your beans into a pot, add in a mixture of half water / half olive oil until they are just barely covered, add in some garlic and rosemary and saute for a few minute until soft and fragrant. Or you can keep it simple, honor the beauty of the bean and all that hard work you put into them, and eat them raw, mixed with olive oil and parmesan.
Fava Bean Crostini
inspired by Food 52
3-4 pounds // 1-2 kilo of fava beans in their pods
a few glugs of olive oil (to taste really)
lemon juice (to taste)
a handful of parmesan for the mixture and extra to sprinkle on top
salt and pepper to taste
a few basil leafs chopped
sliced ciabatta bread
Shell the pods and collect the beans in a bowl. Boil water over high heat and add the shelled beans for about 1 minute. Drain them and immediately plunge in cold water. Using your thumbnail pierce the pale green skin and pinch the bright green bean out using your other thumb and forefinger. Discard the pale green shell.
Set aside some of the whole beans to use as a garnish and place the rest in a mortar and pestle. Add in the olive oil, lemon juice, chopped basil, and parmesan and smash up, adding salt and pepper, more olive oil or lemon juice to taste. This is really a recipe about preference so taste as you go and adjust accordingly.
Grill or toast your ciabatta slices and top each with a couple spoonfuls of the purée and some whole beans and some grated parmesan cheese.
These crostini taste like spring, so pack 'em up and bring them to the park for your spring picnic.
It was beautiful here this past week, summer-esq, and we spent the entire weekend outside, shoes off, enjoying the sunshine.