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May Day in Rome Is All About the Fava

01 May 2024
by Giadzy
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The oversized bean is beloved in the Italian capital when spring comes around.

In Italy, May 1 is a holiday called Festa del Lavoro or Festa dei Lavoratori, a celebration of workers’ rights. May Day, as it’s also known, is celebrated in many European countries, though in the U.S. and Canada it’s been mostly replaced in its purpose by late summer’s Labor Day. Thanks to its timing, Italians also use this day off to celebrate the arrival of spring, and in Rome and its surrounding area, that means just one thing: enjoying fresh fava beans. 

Fava beans in a Roman market

Also known as broad beans thanks to their wide, flat shape, fava are large, bright green beans that are among the first harvests of the spring season. When they’re young, they’re sweet and slightly nutty, with a tender texture similar to a fresh spring pea. As they mature, fava become thick and mealy, better suited for drying like a chickpea. Enjoying fava is a labor-intensive process: In addition to being nestled in a thick, fuzzy pod, each individual bean is encased in a thin shell. To get to a fava, you must remove them from their pods, blanch them quickly in boiling water, then peel off the shell. 

Luckily, that’s all the work you need to do to enjoy a fresh spring fava—no further cooking is needed to enjoy their perfect spring flavor. So when Romans set out to enjoy their May holiday (sometimes called Maggetto there), they head to the countryside with picnic baskets loaded with fava and pecorino romano to be nibbled on together. The salty cheese is a perfect counterpoint to the creamy beans, making a snackable, craveable combination. 

Giada celebrating outside

And while their season each year is short, fava’s history in Italy dates back thousands of years. In Ancient Rome, they were a symbol of fertility and were an important part of Ludi Flores, a festival that honored Flora, the goddess of spring. Because they are relatively easy to grow, they were a protein-packed staple for peasants through the Middle Ages, and in Sicily, they helped prevent famine when a drought killed all the crops except fava beans. If you want to celebrate spring’s arrival the way Romans have for millennia, look for the long, oversized pods of fresh fava at your local farmers’ market. Serve with pecorino romano or toss them with pasta—and enjoy them outside, if you can! 

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