Schinousa is a 9.5-m2 island in the “Little Cyclades”, home to 200 permanent residents, most of whom are engaged in farming, fishing, livestock and tourism. Ten of the residents cultivate the Schinousa fava bean, a type of yellow split pea found only on the island. (The Greek fava is almost always mistranslated on menus and food sites with the similar-sounding English term fava bean; the latter, however, is in fact only another name for the thumbnail-sized green broad bean). It’s traditionally boiled with onion, the deep cornmeal gold of the legume turning a creamy pale yellow as it thickens into a velvety puree, which is then served dressed with a generous amount of olive oil and sprinkled with capers and finely sliced onion.
Until recently, the only way to taste this remarkably flavorful legume was to travel to the island itself, a reward in itself, of course, the ultimate chill-out island, with pristine beaches fronting bays of translucent turquoise waters and a charming hilltop village that seems to have emerged untouched from the 1950s.
I tasted my first Schinousa fava, however, on another island in the Cyclades archipelago, Sifnos, at the Tselementia, an annual three-day festival of Aegean island cooking named after the early 20th-century Sifnos-born chef and author of the first comprehensive cookbook in Greek, Nikolaos Tselementes. There in the small flagstone-paved square of the village of Artemonas, one of the most beautiful traditional settlements in the Aegean, representatives from a dozen and a half islands man kiosks where they offer visitors tidbits of local delicacies and take turns ascending a wooden platform at the end of the square to give cooking demonstrations of their island’s dishes. At the Schinousa kiosk, a trio of islanders, all sporting identical bright blue t-shirts emblazoned with the name of their homeland, were serving guests thin rounds of bread topped with a puree of their fava. The nutty puree was delicious, with its undertones of chestnut and black pepper. Who’d have thought a legume could taste this good?
Later that evening I met Manolis Koveos, the farmer whose beans I had sampled. He’s a handsome, dark-haired young man with a winning smile and a deep sense of responsibility for the legacy he had been entrusted with. The seeds he sows have been handed down from his grandfather, as one might a family heirloom. (I am told that fava has been cultivated on the island for the last 250 years.). His contagious enthusiasm for his product and his island is evident as he describes how the seeds are sown and harvested. He tells me that no more than half the seeds at hand are sown in December, the rest saved in case the harvest fails. “The seeds can’t be found in the market,” he explains. The plants are cultivated without the use of fertilizers and pesticides—“only what nature provides,” Koveos says. The peas are harvested in June in the early morning hours and by hand as the plants, he explains, are too delicate for machines.
Machines there are, however. In an admirable case of community solidarity, he and other farmers got together to bring sorting and packaging machines to the island. Koveos’ split-peas are cleverly packaged in a minimalist brown-paper bag or, for smaller packages, in a clear bag slipped into a burlap-like diaper that recalls the sacks that corner grocery stores in earlier decades used to keep legumes and rice (traditionally these items were sold loose in bulk).
I bought packages for friends in Athens, but I hope the Schinousa fava finds the broader audience it deserves and that its more famous cousin—the Santorini fava—has acquired. For the time being, Koveos travels to food fairs across the country to promote and sell his product, winning prizes for his fava along the way. He has plans, however, to begin distributing his split peas to select delicatessens and food stores in Athens. I can’t wait.