Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I sleep in a bedroom painted “Pea Green.” It is a colour that follows you into slumber, pulling the gate of the day to. I got the idea from a friend, who years ago painted every room (in a house I never saw, with his lover whom I was too late to meet), all in shades of green. A vegetal interior, top to bottom leaf, frond and furl. I imagine that this was like living inside out; they made themselves a house in which they could roam the greenwood. And it was a turning away from the taut business of choice: instead of seeking the one perfect verdant shade, they had gathered swathes of greens and chosen all.

The greenest fruit, the pea, has been used as a fulcrum for some dubious practices of selection. One of the stories that Hans Christian Andersen collected, The Princess and the Pea, tells of the prince who must marry a princess, and only a real one will do. One evening just such a princess turns up, sodden, seeking shelter from the rain. She is offered a bed of twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds too, under which a single pea has been stranded by a queen’s bony hand. In the morning, when asked how she slept, she complains roundly of something in the bed that bruised her all over. Seized by this as proof of the girl’s blue-blood, the queen whisks her to the altar with her witless son. Why did that pinched monarch think that this particular legume would single out a princess? Raised in the stalked siblinghood of a pod, a pea is as companionable as a syllable. What truck would it have with overseeing the segregation of real from pretend princesses? And leaving its siblings aside for a moment, the single pea, inside its own dashing jacket, is a fellow of two halves. The pea knows, surely, that we are all seamed creatures, as liable to split as roll.

My own feeling is that the small green pea in Andersen’s tale is actually a red herring. The princess satisfies her future mother-in-law not because she is a highly calibrated critic, but because she knows how to throw a huge hissy fit. The real princess knows to complain, even about the luxuries that cushion her. This is the true sign of aristocracy so-called. All lower orders are raised to emit thanks routinely, smoothing over the failings of others and anxiously sweeping the spaces we occupy, all to ward off eviction. I was always fascinated by the amplified, excessive comforts of that square heap of mattresses, but I was never sure whether I desired to be the girl atop them, or the secret but telling pea stifled under their weight. Of course, if the queen is right and breeding always tells, then my place in the story is as the unstoried chambermaid, who must heave down the manic pile of bedding in the morning, shaking her mobcapped head when she unearths the hard nubble of the pea.

The queen’s pea, to suit her purpose, would clearly have been dried, not fresh. Dried peas featured in my childhood, also as an agent of separation. On visits to my Nana and Poppa in Birmingham, we were served up green peas, heated from frozen, with our plates of meat and potatoes. But mysteriously, Poppa had his own special peas – marrowfat dried peas that had to be set to soak the day before. Curious, I would lower the swing-down step of the steppy stool, climb up to counter level and peer into the bowl of large, sullen peas submerged beneath the water. Their grey-green pallor, their wizen that swelled to a slow smoothness, held a kind of goblin allure for me. At dinner, I often petitioned to have a spoonful of them on my plate, partly to taste their floury outlandishness and partly to see if my childish request to share his food might penetrate the seclusion of my grandfather. Husked and dry himself, his taste for marrowfat peas came from the privations of the war. I don’t know if dried peas were part of the diet of the submarines he served in, or the civilian rations he came home to, but his special bowl on the kitchen counter was a signal that this household had been assembled in the crucible of war, and that the very taste of combat, as well as its silences, remained beneath the everyday prattle of the present. Our peas, green and verdant as the summer day on which they were frozen, burst sweet on our tongues even as I watched Poppa at the end of the table, lifting forkfuls of his own gray peas to his lips.

Beatrix Potter, writing in 1918 at the end of an earlier war, understood peas and the translations they could effect. She uses peas not to differentiate, but to muddle up class and place. Peas get Timmy Willie, the simple country mouse, into some trouble in a hamper. Having crawled in through a hole in the wicker-work and feasted on the peas inside, Timmy Willie takes a post-prandial nap and ends up transported to the city. In the city he must negotiate the nice manners, the neckties and dining tables of city mice. Out of place, transferred by the love of peas into the perils of sophistication, Timmy Willie longs to return home. He finally makes it back, under the protection of that most despised of vegetables, the cabbage. But the tale of the country mouse and the city mouse is not a tale of the indissoluble differences between classes and ways of living; it is a verdant love story. Potter’s watercolors are all tinted with dreamy greens in this tale, from the hammock-like pod Timmy Willie falls asleep in, to his geranium leaf umbrella, to the withered cabbage leaf that chaperones him back to his much-missed country life. Finally, when Johnny Town-mouse visits him in his violet-scented rural home, Timmy Willie makes his fancy friend a bed of grass clippings and the two mice sit together and share a herb pudding in the sun. Led from home by the aristocratic pea and summoned back by the humble cabbage, Timmy walks a green road that ends in fellowship; the country mouse has found himself a very dashing and nicely dressed gentleman with whom to share his vegetal idyll.

Timmy's green and savoury pudding stays with me as an ideal of hospitality - sprigged with the same foliage that canopies his modest dining table. So when I found shelling peas at the market last week, alongside a tangle of flowered and coiled pea shoots, I wanted to make something green and full of garden. I had invited my friend Bryn for dinner, to thank her for ushering me through a time of trial. Bryn is as lovely as a pea shoot herself, and real in a way that horrible mattress-piling queens could never divine. I felt that teacups should be involved in my homage to Bryn, because teacups are always, in all contexts, both homey and fancy – a mix, perhaps, of Timmy and Johnny. I have a set of glass teacups that I usually use to serve flowery tisanes, and it was these teacups that led me to choose chilled fresh pea soup. I found plenty of recipes that granted room to both herb and foliage. Some cooked a couple of fresh pods in with the peas, some used lettuce, and most used mint. I would use mint but also . . . something more.

What I found strange as I foraged for a recipe, was the universal agreement among cooks that green peas are, somehow, ineluctably English. It was “English peas” this and “English peas” that. The only exception, in a typical cross-channel stand off, is for the really tiny green peas – petit pois. Somehow the French have claimed land rights to the itty bitty ones. “The pea! It is English! You can see by its greenness, its pleasantness, its regularity! It is English!” “Pah! You English may have the regular pea, the galumphing big pea, but we, the French, will claim the tenderest, the tiniest, the sweetest!”

Not surprisingly, the history of the pea in both of these unpleasantly arrogant nations is a history of class distinction. In Paradisi in Sol (1629), John Parkinson writes: "Peas of all or most of these sorts, are either used when they are greene, and be a dish of meate for the table of the rich as well as poore, yet every one observing his time, and the kinde: the fairest, sweetest, youngest, and earliest for the better sort, the later and meaner kinds for the meaner, who do not give the deerest price." Meanwhile, across the water in France, a mania for green peas was prompted by a very real, very hissy-fit throwing princess indeed – an Italian one from a formidable family. Catherine de' Medici brought "pisella novelli" with her from Florence in 1533 for her marriage to Henry II and they soon became acclaimed as a royal dish – to be distinguished from the boiled peas eaten by the French peasantry. Little fresh green peas became the aristocratic craze. In a May 10, 1695 letter, Mme. De Maintenoy writes to Cardinal de Noailles: "The subject of peas is being treated at length: impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the longing to eat them again are the three points about which our princes have been talking for four days. There are some ladies who, after having supped with the King, and well supped too, help themselves to peas at home before going to bed at the risk of indigestion. It is both a fashion and a madness."

In other words, The English and the French got peas from the Italians, then set about arguing over whose peas were whose, and denying peas to some and granting them to others. And true to form, both England and France conveniently forgot that peas are, in fact, Asian. The noble ancestor of the modern pea is believed to have dwelt somewhere between Afghanistan and northern India. My soup, I decided, would therefore have a tantalizing hint – almost unplaceable, but enough to annoy both English and French palates – of curry.

But culinary tussles over class and nation – and my own pedantic but ultimately delicious engagement – rage in vain around the pea. For quite some time now, peas themselves have quietly but firmly debunked the very premise of the battle. Once upon a time, British plant physiologist Thomas Andrew Knight (1759 - 1838), found a wrinkled, degenerate, miserable looking pea in a whole field of smooth green peas. Knight had ambitions to develop new and better breeds, and he suspected that treasures lurked in that tumble-down legume. A reach backwards, he realized, was in fact the way forward. A generation later, Gregor Johann Mendel chose peas for his studies of dominant and recessive traits, developing theories of genetic variation. Heredity, he began to demonstrate, is discontinuous. Princesses, in other words, are never real. Aristocracy and peasantry pop up where you least expect them – they are in fact interchangeable, inter-referenced variations on the same theme.

I sat in my kitchen in the morning, popping the seams of the pods and running a thumb along the ranks of peas. Shelling peas has a tactile rhythm to it and the peapod itself has a peculiar, Art Deco-like blend of symmetry and asymmetry. There is almost no work in the world as physically and aesthetically pleasing as shelling fresh peas. The peapods' mix of repetition – “as alike as peas in a pod” – and whimsy – those tapered, flutey-hatted stems – simultaneously awes and delights me. And the scent is pure summer.

That evening, Bryn tasted her soup delicately. She said nothing between her first spoonful and her second, but her silence was companionable, communicative and generous. She let me know she liked it by the way she blinked, slowly, dipping her spoon back into the taste of bright green.

Forbidden Fruit a flavor has
That lawful Orchards mocks --
How luscious lies within the Pod
The Pea that Duty locks --

-- Emily Dickinson


Serve this soup the same day that it is made, otherwise it will oxidise and lose its vivid green. The fiddly icing of the peas, before and after cooking, will help them retain their colour. The multiple sievings will produce a luxurious texture, but simply leave some out if you want a more rustic soup.

2oz (50g), 4 tblsp unsalted butter
6 oz or one bunch of spring onions or young, green-stemmed onions, chopped
one small butter lettuce, sliced
1 tsp sugar
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp curry powder (best made yourself), or nutmeg
3 lbs in the pod, young green peas – save 4 or 5 of the freshest peapods
about 6 mint leaves
1 1/2 pints vegetable stock (or light chicken stock, or water)
salt and white pepper
crème fraiche for garnish
pea shoots or mint sprigs or reserved whole cooked peas to garnish

Heat a medium saucepan over high heat for about 1 minute. Add 4 tablespoons of butter and when it foams, stir in the onion, curry powder and 1 tsp of salt. Turn the heat down to medium and cook 5-7 minutes until the onion is translucent. Do not let it colour. Add the lettuce, stir to coat well and cook another 4-5 minutes until it has wilted. Stir in the mint leaves and turn off the heat.

Put the peas in a bowl, cover them with ice cubes and toss together to chill them.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add the sugar and the salt. Remove the ice cubes from the peas and, adding to them, set up an ice bath of ice cubes and water with a colander sitting in it. Add the peas from to the boiling water. It is important that the water returns to a boil as quickly as possible, so only cook them in small batches, maintaining the boil. Cook for 7-10 minutes, depending on the quantity and quality of the peas, being sure not to undercook them. You should not strive for an al dente texture. Removing the peas with a strainer or slotted spoon, immediately dunk them into the colander in the ice bath. Repeat this process until all the peas are cooked, boiling the 4-5 peapods (for flavour) with one of the batches.

Puree the peas and the onion-lettuce mixture together in a food processor, adding a little of the stock to loosen it a little. Then scrape the puree through a tamis if you have one, or the finest mesh on a food mill. Place the puree in a blender with about half of the vegetable stock and blend. Adjust the consistency, using the rest of your stock. Pour through a Chinois and chill well. Once cold, add salt and white pepper to taste. Serve decorated with pea shoots or mint leaves and a small scoop of crème fraiche.

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