The Bitter Vetch (Vicia ervilia)

I have written about the first domesticated animal—but what about the first domesticated plants? Nobody is currently sure which exact grain or bean was first farmed but there is a list of eight Neolithic “founder crops” which seem to have come into cultivation more or less at the same time (about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago). Of the 8 original crops, three are grains: Emmer wheat, Einkorn wheat, and good old Barley. One of the crops was flax (which provided both linen and flaxseed). The four remaining Neolithic crops were all pulses (legumes, when used for food) namely lentils, peas, chickpeas, and bitter vetch.

These crops are surprisingly familiar. Just last summer I was sitting in my garden drinking beer (barley) and eating chickpea curry on flatbread (wheat—albeit a descendant of the first cultivars) while wearing a linen shirt. Peas and lentils are equally universal. However, there is one founder crop which has faded almost entirely from the modern world’s consciousness–bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia). I am writing this post because I was reading a 2nd century Roman text and came across mention of the vetch. Unfamiliar with the plant I looked it up and found out its ancient lineage. Vicia ervilia has been found at Neolithic and Eneolithic sites across Eastern Europe, the trans-Balkan, and the Levant. The bitter vetch is a small green plant with delicate frond-like leaves and lovely purple flowers. It bears tiny irregular grains which somewhat resemble lentils when split. The grain is exceedingly bitter—when cooked for human consumption the bitterness must be leached out with multiple changes of boiling water (a process which must be followed to prevent poisoning oneself–see more below).

Bitter vetch may have been a staple crop at the dawn of civilization and it was for sale in the markets of the first cities but it fell from favor as tastier starchier grains were discovered. The Roman reference which I encountered was in The Golden Ass by Apuleius, and, because of the narrative peculiarity, of that text it was unclear whether the bitter vetch was meant for people or for livestock. Ascetics ate it throughout the middle ages as a proof they were turning their back on the world, and, because it was easy to grow, it found use among the abjectly poor. To quote, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s The History of Food, bitter vetch “featured in the frugal diet of the poor until the eighteenth century, and even reappeared on the black market in the South of France during the Second World War.”

Bitter Vetch Grain (I think--the image was kind of obliquely labeled)

I have never tried bitter vetch (commenters, I’d love to hear from you regarding this) but it doesn’t sound very good or very nutritious.  In fact it seems like it might be dangerous.  As with Taroc and faba beans, unless one carefully follows a paticular preparation process, the bitter vetch seeds contain toxins.  In an era where everyone is questioning monoculture, factory farming, and transgenic grains it is worth thinking about Bitter vetch. It is a reminder of how good we have it now.