Sometimes, the simplest of luxuries are the most exquisitely enjoyable, says Tom Parker Bowles, as he dives into peas fresh from the pod.
Luxury comes in myriad forms. There’s the lavishly obvious — caviar, lots of it, piled high on Melba toast. And the illicit — ortolans, those tiny, tragic songbirds, fattened in the dark, drowned in brandy and eaten whole. You hide beneath a napkin as you eat, not only to inhale all those heady scents, but to shield your gluttony, they say, from the eyes of God. Simple luxuries, too — a gulp of cool spring water to slake a raging thirst or hot buttered toast. But nothing, for me, comes close to the exquisite, albeit fleeting, joy of eating fresh peas straight from their pod.
The absolute quintessence of nubile vitality, I cannot think of a vegetable I love more. Not even asparagus, sea kale or broad beans. To truly appreciate their ‘fragile, poignant flavour,’ sighs M. F. K. Fisher, that most lyrical of food writers, ‘they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute’. Ripped greedily from the vine — the pod sliced apart with eager nail and disembowelled with the thumb — those verdant emerald spheres are insanely addictive. Once you pop, to steal the tagline from a rather less-exalted snack, you can’t stop.
It’s a ritual that never loses its charm, as fundamentally thrilling now, ensconced in middle age, as it was in my childhood, with pods rarely making it past the kitchen-garden gate. Recipes, be damned. This is all about instant gratification, with too much never being enough, such is the perfect sweetness of their eternal appeal.
It wasn’t always thus. Because the pert and pretty objects of my adoration are a relatively recent arrival, developed by Italian gardeners of the late Renaissance. The original field pea, a basic food since Neolithic times, was bigger, coarser, yellow rather than green and grown to be dried, not eaten fresh. Cheap, filling and packed with protein, these peas were very much a winter staple — soaked and turned into pease pottage, pudding and soup — rather than a delicate summer treat.
Hot grey pease and ‘a suck of bacon’ (the bacon was attached to a string, held by the stall holder) was a popular, if hygienically questionable London street food in the reign of James I and the capital’s dreaded and noxious ‘pea-souper’ fogs were so named thanks to the sulphurous yellow tang of their smog. Hence the ‘London Particular’, an old-fashioned pea and ham soup.
When these new piselli, petit pois or garden peas were first grown, they were a rare and expensive luxury. Once the lumpen stodge of the European peasant, they found favour in the soft, perfumed hands of preening courtiers at Versailles and the gilded world of Louis XIV.
Then came the advent of canning (and the French versions are far superior to the garishly dyed English ones) and the frozen revolution. The garden pea soon became ubiquitous and I don’t think there’s a freezer across the land without at least one bag of these miracle vegetables nestled within. Out of season, they’re life savers and very good quality, too, frozen mere moments after harvest. But, at this time of the year, I only have eyes for the fresh.
Jane Grigson recommends boiling them in their pods for a few minutes and serving with a bowl of melted butter, eaten like edamame. They’re also wonderful cooked à la crème or à la française, with lettuce, small onions, mint and white wine. Or risi e bisi, in the Venetian style. But, for me, raw and unadorned is best of all, with nothing save a small pinch of salt.
This recipe is from Alastair Little’s Italian Kitchen, which, together with his Keep It Simple, is one of my favourite cookbooks.
Recipe: Zuppa di Piselli
- 1kg fresh peas, podded, reserving the peas and pods separately
- 30g butter
- 1 onion, 1 celery stick, 1 bunch mint and 1 carrot, all peeled, stringed, stalked and very finely diced into a soffritto
- 2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
- Salt and pepper
- Croutons (sliced stale bread cut into 1cm (0.4in) dice and deep-fried)
- 4tbspn crème fraîche
- A little hot paprika
Bring two litres of water to a rolling boil. Blanch the peas for 8–10 minutes or until tender. Remove the peas and refresh in cold water, drain and dry, then reserve. Do not throw away the cooking water, it provides the liquid for the soup.
In a largish casserole or saucepan, melt the butter, add the soffritto and sweat for 10 minutes over a medium to low heat. Add the potato dice and sweat for a further five minutes, until they start to stick.
While the soffritto is sweating, string the pea pods and chop them coarsely. Add them to the soffritto and potato and toss. Add enough of the pea cooking water to barely cover the vegetables. Season and stir. Turn up the heat and boil until the potato dice disintegrate.
Allow to cool for a few minutes off the heat. Purée this soup mix in a liquidiser. Pour it through a fine sieve, pressing hard to get everything through except the stringier bits of the pods.
Serve chilled, with the peas in it, and check the seasoning. Serve with the croutons and a spoonful of crème fraîche in each soup plate, together with a very light dusting of hot paprika
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