21st century pulse: peas

Categories: Expert guidance

To celebrate the International Year of Pulses, author and UN pulse ambassador Jenny Chandler explores these nutritional powerhouses and shares her tips on how best to prepare them. This month: the great British pea

Growing up in the seventies, like may Brits I viewed pulses with suspicion—they belonged to the realm of the dippy-hippy folk or were linked to strange cuisines from distant climes. Fresh garden peas, though, were an entirely different matter, scoffed like sweeties straight from the pod in summer time or boiled up from the never-ending supply of petit pois crammed into the tiny freezer compartment of the fridge, next to the ice cubes. I never even considered them a relative of the chickpea, the bean or the lentil.

It’s easy to forget that historically all peas were grown to be dried, stored and eaten at a later date. ‘Pease’ were a British staple from the middle ages right through to the mid-20th century. This old nursery rhyme is a reminder of how most of our ancestors ate—pease pudding with a spot of pork if you were lucky or a bowl of gruel if you weren’t: “Pease pudding hot, / Pease pudding cold, /Pease pudding in the pot nine-days old.”

Dried peas were once a key source of protein in our diets, pushed aside in more recent times by higher meat consumption and replaced as a vegetable by a widening variety of greens and, of course, the now ubiquitous frozen pea.

Marrowfat peas, perhaps the best known and largest of the traditional dried British peas are, unlike garden peas, left on the plants to mature and become starchy before being harvested and dried. Cooked from scratch these require little more than time.

An overnight soak with a 1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda per 500 grams of peas will speed up the cooking considerably, and the bicarb also helps them retain a little of their natural colour—although the ominously artificial green glow of certain tinned varieties is noticeably absent. Covered in water and cooked until tender, the peas only call for some salt, vinegar and perhaps a pinch of sugar to be transformed into that perfect foil for fish and chips: mushy peas.

Dried green and yellow peas have been used for comforting, wintery soups by northern Europeans and Americans for centuries. Pea and ham soup is the English classic, with the pea-souper fogs that used to engulf the capital leading to its other name, London particular—you can find my recipe here. Whilst it’s possible to buy whole peas, split peas are much quicker and easier to cook, since they have lost their thick skins and require no soaking at all. You can try throwing them into any root vegetable soup to give it a hearty, nutritious edge.

Nowadays most of us are pretty cosmopolitan in our tastes; London is such a melting pot and there’s always something new to discover. Thankfully we‘ve learned to appreciate our own British food heritage too and carlin peas are finally on the menu down south. These firm brown peas (also somewhat confusingly known as grey peas, black peas, maple peas or rather fabulously as black badgers) have never lost their following up north.

In Lancashire they’re a Bonfire Night special, served as parched peas simply dressed with a splash of vinegar and salt. The Midlands’ grey peas usually have some bacon thrown in too whilst the Geordies tuck in to carlin peas on the fifth Sunday in Lent with a little butter stirred in. I love to cook up a pot of black badgers and stir them into casseroles or soups or sprinkle them into salads, their thick skin stops them from collapsing to a mush.