Maria & Her Brother or the Big Bean Bonanza

In which we discover that a bean is preferable to bran as a tracking device, that no matter how kind and generous you are, you can still end up in the belly of a shark and that you shouldn’t trust anyone who leads you into dark woods.

Little Brother and Little Sister

So what did you think of the tale? It shares a lot of fairy tale elements of other tales, some of which we have already explored in the episode which included the story Two Little Pizzas . The tale type is ATU 450 – Little Brother and Little Sister. There is definitely a passing similarity in parts to ATU 480 The False Bride (see trapped in fish in the Two Little Pizzas) and even a smidge of ATU 403 – The Kind and the Unkind Girls. There are lots of similarities to the the Grimm tales of Little Brother and Little Sister and Hansel and Gretel. Equally similar is a much earlier Italian (or Neopolitan) tale: Nennillo and Nennella from Giambattista Basile’s Tale of Tales.

Any Excuse for a Bit of Basile

We haven’t visited Basile for a while have we? People who have listened to some of the earlier episodes may have noticed my interest in this publication. Its not exactly an obsession but I do love to see so many later tales which reference back to it. For those of you who are unaware, the book was originally published in 2 parts in 1634 and 1636 posthumously by the sister of the author. It is a collection of folk and fairy tales told in the Neopolitan dialect by an Italian courtier. The collection of 50 stories is framed by a an overarching story in a similar fashion to 1001 Nights. Some scholars draw direct comparisons to the even earlier Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. This was written in Florentine vernacular in the 14th Century.

Basile’s collection was also known as the Pentamerone as it contained 50 tales. If you would like to know why I’m so fascinated by the Pentamerone and your grasp of Italian/Neapolitan dialect is shaky, I suggest you avoid the 19th century/early 20th century translations as they have lost a lot of nuance. They also removed a lot of what they considered to be coarse or vulgar language due to their prudishness. They also wanted to make them more suitable for their middle-class English audience. Thankfully Nancy Canepa has produced a wonderful modern translation which is available on penguin books.

Back To Sicily

Anyway we weren’t talking about Basile’s tale but about Maria and her Brother which is a Sicilian tale. This was collected by Laura Gonzenbach, in Sicilianische Märchen published in 1870. Its not a very Sicilian sounding name is it? Well that’s because she wasn’t Sicilian, she was Swiss German and she translated the oral tales into High German suitable for her German audience.

You might think that this invalidates the tales but actually Laura lived in Sicily for many years and spoke Sicilian dialects fluently. Her father was a merchant and consul in Messina and after the death of his wife he was happy for his eldest daughter Magdalena to run his household and the cultural salons of artists and musicians that her mother had done before her.

Magdalena essentially raised Laura and her progressive (for the time) beliefs about women’s education and place in society definitely helped form some of Laura’s opinions. Laura collected the tales on behalf of a German pastor Otto Hartwig who had originally thought to add them to his historical survey of Sicily based on his time on the island. He realised that they were worthy of standing alone and worked with Rheinhold Köhler, a folklorist who produced comparison notes for the collection.

Untrained, Female and Foreign

Unfortunately Laura was not taken as seriously as she might have been due to being untrained and a woman as well as being a foreigner. We also don’t have any notes or information about the original tales and how she collected them as all her effects from this time were destroyed in the Messina earthquake of 1909. She told Hartwig the she had not embellished the tales but something is always lost in translation and we don’t know how much the stories were then changed in the editing process although Hartwig maintained that very little changed.

This uncertainty meant that it was easy to dismiss the collection. However, Jack Zipes has translated these stories into English in two volumes and insists that from the language and the way the stories are written the original oral tales shine through. He believes they are as important as Giuseppe Pitrè’s collection that I discussed briefly in The Thirteen Bandits Episode:

Old (& Young) Wives’ Tales

Where Laura’s collection is different is that the majority of the tales she collected were told to her by women, both from country women and lower middle-class town dwellers. Her tales although not feminist in nature do not shy away from many of the difficulties that women in Sicily suffered in a very poor and patriachal society. The tales are told from a very female perspective and only two of the tales in the collection were told to her by men. This female perspective is very obvious when we examine similar tales to Maria and her Brother.

Just the name itself makes it stand out: Maria and her Brother. He is named in the story itself but not mentioned in the title. In both other variants where the children are named it is the brother’s name that comes first in the title: Nennillo and Nennella and Hansel and Gretel. Even in the tale which comes closest to ours and that entitles the tale type it is little brother then little sister.

She is the leader throughout our story, trying desperately to keep her brother from harm and then protecting him after the inevitable happens. She even manages to save him when she’s heavily pregnant inside a shark. The other tales all also have a certain amount of weeping and wailing from their female protagonist and it is always the brother who does the rescuing or moves the story along by his actions.

Dangerous Themes

There are two themes though that exist across all the variants including ours and that is of the wicked stepmother and the children being abandoned or forced to leave home due to lack of food. In the original Grimm collection, Hansel and Gretel it was their own mother. This was changed in later versions to make it more acceptable to the morals of an audience which valued family.

In the Basile tale as well as the Grimm Little Brother and Little Sister it was always a stepmother. There are strong themes of jealousy between stepmother/stepdaughter and siblings through a lot of Sicilian tales and this is a large part of the story. You would think wouldn’t you that she could leave the poor children alone once she had forced them out of the house but no, the enmity seems to be lifelong.

Wolves or Starvation?

The themes of famine and poverty and having more children than you could feed are constants across Europe at this time. Sicily was particularly affected as a subsistence economy with very high levels of poverty. It is always easy to judge the fathers in these stories who seem helpless in the face of their wives’ fury but actually being killed by cold or wild creatures might possibly have been a slightly better and definitely quicker death than a slow death by starvation. We don’t know how common child abandonment was through the Middle Ages and later but it definitely happened and children were abandoned in forests as well as in special places outside churches set aside just for this purpose.

Beans, Beans, not all good for your heart apparently

I suppose this brings us quite nicely to the beans in our story that enabled the children to escape abandonment twice until there were no more left to help them. Luppini beans are an interesting choice here because they were not really human food, even then. They were and in fact still are poisonous due to the alkaloids present throughout the bean. These alkaloids can affect the central nervous system, causing depression, convulsions and respiratory failure.

They are also unpalatable unless they are boiled and then washed, not merely soaked, for about a week or so with frequent changes of water. They never soften with cooking so are best treated as olives and eaten as a crunchy snack after been soaked in brine or pickled. You can actually still buy them pickled in jars in Italy, presumably having been treated in this fashion first. The outer skins are still very hard and are often discarded just as the children did in this story.

Cattle Feed

They actually have more protein than some meat dishes including burgers so should be a worthwhile food once you’ve go rid of those troublesome alkaloids but strangely they remain underused except for cattle feed which is perhaps why they are used in this story to show just how poor the family was to be eating beans that most people feed to cattle.

It was a shorthand for the time that we probably don’t appreciate as much now. Although beans, particularly dried beans, have long been the foods of the poor. They are an excellent non meat protein source but strangely once people have regular access to meat they stop eating them. Eating dried beans has long clearly declared the eater’s lack of status in western society.

An Agriccultural Essential

Its very strange though, beans are an essential in agriculture. The ability of their roots to fix nitrogen in the soil and then the grown plants be fed to animals who produce manure which also enriches the soil is a key component of agriculture. Everyone focuses on grains but the soil in which grain grows has to be rested and or enriched if all the nutrients in the soil aren’t to be used up. Beans can been planted in the fallow (rest) year to enrich the soil, feed animals and also store and dry some of the crop which can then be eaten in times of famine.

Thy are also very portable in their dried form and excellent for travel or migrating which is how they spread from the Fertile Crescent across Europe and later, back and forwards across the Atlantic. So why weren’t they more popular, why aren’t the early cookbooks overflowing with recipes for them? There are some clues with the Greeks and Romans. Pythagoras was very anti them amongst other Greek philosophers and believed the beans contained the souls of those who had died as well as those who had not been born. He thought the gas that was released during the digestion of dried beans was actually people’s souls being released from the beans. He also had an unpleasant experience in a bean field and directed his followers to avoid them at all costs.

Packing Materials

The Roman elite did not eat them but only when mixed with interesting and exotic ingredients to avoid damaging their status. However lowly they were considered as a foodstuff in a strange way they were valued as part of Rome’s proud farming heritage and several elite families bore names based on Fava beans and chickpeas. Lentils definitely weren’t valued and were used as packing in one famous case of a monument. Beans were planted across Roman estates though as they were a food of the poor even amongst the Romans. However during the dark ages across Europe after the Romans, it wasn’t possible to plan long term agricultural projects.

A Christian Advantage

In the early Middle Ages the status of beans was slightly elevated however by Christianity. The need to observe fast days and periods such as Lent meant that everyone who couldn’t afford fish, dispensations or who,struggled to catch beavers or import dolphins was reliant on alternative sources of food. In Lent particularly, this meant beans. In early Spring, only some fresh crops were beginning to appear and winter stores had been used up including any precious preserved meat.

Beans had the advantage that they could be grown the year before and dried then kept for Spring without spoiling. This didn’t help the bean’s reputation as a poverty or austerity food. It is only during periods when meat is affordable for the majority that eating beans didn’t necessarily mean you were lower class. This was true after the Black Death swept Europe and millions died. It was a terrible time but for those that survived there was a short period of almost democratic prosperity where most people could afford to eat meat and bean recipes flourished (there are some other reasons but its an interesting observation).

In a World Where Meat is Plentiful …….

It is also noticeable across the Western world that now that most people can eat meat, interest in vegetarianism and veganism or plant based lifestyles have partly resulted in the popularity of heirloom ingredients such as beans and high priced specialist crops have become a sign of status. It must be noted that that this is more noticeable in Northern Europe, in Southern Europe beans have remained much more popular.

Its worth noting here as well perhaps that chickpeas are actually beans too. Anyway, I’ve skipped several centuries but just to fill in dried beans didn’t get any more popular during the intervening period. They rarely appear in cookbooks in their dried form until Alexis Soyer and Francatelli started writing cookbooks for the working classes during the Victorian period in England. They did appear as fresh ingredients but these were considered a luxury and suitable for the moneyed middle classes so worthy of inclusion.

The Uncertain Future of the Bean

Aside from the soy bean (of which we don’t have enough time and I don’t have enough knowledge to discuss here), the number of bean crops has been declining and who knows whether the already mentioned changes in eating habits due to ethical and climate concerns will reverse this. Food scientists may well find other uses for beans that we haven’t thought of yet, Luppini beans apparently show great potential for some industrial uses.

Broad beans (Fava Beans) are still popular for eating though in Sicily, although older people are moving away from dried beans due to their poverty associations. I’m a big fan of dried bean soups though due to the writing of Patience Gray and Nigel Slater amongst several others, and coming from a different country and generation they don’t have the same associations for me.

So I was pleased to find that according to Giorgio Locatelli they are proving more popular with the younger generation of Sicilians who want to value their traditional foods. I feel this means that it would be a nice idea to use a personal favourite bean recipe here from Giorgio’s Made in Sicily, adapted slightly to use more storecupbaord/freezer ingredients.

Zuppa di Fave e Finocchio – Broad Bean and Fennel Soup



Prep time


Cooking time





Adapted from Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli


  • 500g dried broad beans with or without skins

  • 2 teaspoons of fennel seeds, soaked in a little water

  • 200g frozen broad beans

  • olive oil

  • 1 small onion, finely diced

  • 1 medium carrot, finely diced

  • 1 celery stalk, finely diced

  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • extra-virgin olive oil for finishing


  • Soak the dried broad beans in cold water overnight, then drain.
  • Next day, put the soaked beans and the soaked fennel seeds into a pan, add enough water to cover plus an inch, and bring to the boil. Put a lid on the pan, then turn down the heat and cook slowly for about 2 hours, or until the beans are completely soft, adding water as necessary.
  • While the dried beans are cooking, blanch the fresh beans in boiling unsalted water for a couple of minutes, then drain and peel off the skins and put to one side
  • Towards the end of the cooking time for the dried beans, in a separate pan, heat a little olive oil, then add the diced onion, carrot and celery and cook until soft but not coloured.
  • Once the dried beans are cooked, add the onion, carrot and celery to the now cooked dried beans pan and blend all together with an hand blender (you can use any blender but I find a hand held one in the pan easier when everything is hot and it avoids washing up)
  • Once blended smooth, add the fresh broad beans and cook for 15 minutes, then season and serve drizzled with a little extra-virgin olive oil and maybe a few fresh beans scattered over.
Further Reading

From Beautiful Angiola, The Lost Sicilian Folk & Fairy Tales collected by Laura Gonzenbach, translated & edited by Jack Zipes
Laura Gonzenbach and Her Forgotten Treasure of “Sicilian Fairy Tales”

Author(s): Jack Zipes
Source: Marvels & Tales , 2003, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2003), pp. 239-250 Published by: Wayne State University Press
Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I  – Child Ballad #36 “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea”
The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm – Jacob Grimm (author), Wilhelm Grimm (author), Jack Zipes (editor)
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales – Donald Haase
The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitrè Volume 1 & 2, Translated and Edited by Jack Zipes and Joseph Russo
Beans, A History – Ken Albala
Beans, A Global History – Natalie Rachel Morris

Featured Image: Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov: Alyonushka –