Spring peas

Spring is a wonderful time of the year, especially if you like freshly picked peas. Last year I never harvested any, but only because I ate them directly off the vine. So this year I planted enough, and what a joy they have been. The season is coming to an end. So here and there I am still able to pick a pod or two, but for the most part those that are left are yellowing with age and the peas inside will either go into a pot of soup or stored for next year’s planting.

As a child I was always puzzled by the fairy tale of the princess and the pea. How on earth, I wondered, could anyone feel a pea lodged under fifteen layers of mattresses. The pea has of course evolved considerably since the first peas were harvested in the wild and later cultivated in early agrarian societies for both human consumption and fodder. Those very first pea varieties produced very tough grey seeds, and I am sure they were as hard as marbles!

Ancient roots

Genetically, the pea originated in what is today Afghanistan. Archaeological evidence suggests peas were eaten from the earliest times. Undomestic pea remains have been found in a cave in Israel (23,000 years ago) and a site in Syria (11,300 years ago). Although the ancestral pea is extinct, some of its immediate descendants still grow in the Middle East. Scientists have identified three pea species: Pisum sativum L. (Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe), P. fulcrum (Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Syria) and P. abyssinicum (Yemen and Ethiopia). The first two species were probably domesticated about 11,000 years ago, while P. abyssinicum developed from P. sativum about 5,000 years ago in Egypt.

It is likely that peas were harvested together with other grains, probably in the context of a ‘useful weed’. So-called field peas or ‘grey’ peas were produced on fairly robust plants that produced many pods and large seeds. With such a long history of domestication, new varieties emerged. In the Middle Ages, Capuchin monks in Northern Europe also focused on improving field peas and this lead to a number of large ‘grey’ pea varieties, commonly referred to as Capuchin peas. One of the more famous varieties was the the Capucijner, a soup pea with a blue pod.

Garden peas

The Capucijner varieties were often more bushy plants rather than trailing vines. This dwarfism is a recessive gene in peas; it is also the reason why garden peas produce white flowers, unlike the field pea. This white-flowering pea with sweeter seeds that could be eaten freshly shelled was known to the Greeks and Romans, and through the Middle Ages, but generally treated as a vegetable for the aristocrats. In the 17th century, trade routes introduced peas to Asia and the Americas.

Dutch nurseryman began to breed peas with an edible pod, such as mangetouts and petit pois, and were instrumental in introducing garden peas to the middle class. It was Louis XIV and the French court that elevated the garden pea to a fashionable vegetable and stimulated interest throughout Europe and England. In England breeders developed ‘marrowfats’, peas that were sweet and buttery when cooked green and when dried, gave soups a creamy texture. In Paris, Vilmorin produced some of the best varieties during the 19th century, including a giant sugar pea with bicolour flowers.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Mrs Beeton’s famous book on household management was first printed in 1859, at a time plant breeding flourished. The book’s footnotes contain a surprising amount of contemporary information on peas, and of course, recipes. Her footnote on pea varieties is interesting in that it emphasises field peas, that is, commercial crops, rather than the garden peas grown by households.

The varieties of the Pea are numerous; but they may be divided into two classes—those grown for the ripened seed, and those grown for gathering in a green state. The culture of the latter is chiefly confined to the neighbourhoods of large towns, and may be considered as in part rather to belong to the operations of the gardener than to those of the agriculturist. The grey varieties are the early grey, the late grey, and the purple grey; to which some add the Marlborough grey and the horn grey. The white varieties grown in the fields are the pearl, early Charlton, golden hotspur, the common white, or Suffolk, and other Suffolk varieties.

Beaton, I. (1859. Mrs Beaton’s Book on Household Management, London, Chancellor Press, p.581