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Beautiful peas

"Lives are snowflakes - unique in detail, forming patterns we have seen before, but as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'd mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection.) Neil Gaman

My first idea this morning was to write about 'green' and so I started looking for paintings by the masters that were green. And there are lots. Then, because this is supposed to be a blog about food I looked for still life photographs of green vegetables, some of which I downloaded and will save for another time, but pretty soon it became obvious that photographers are somewhat in love with peas. I found so many stunning photographs of peas that I just had to have them, as it were. Here are just some of the ones I found: (these are thumbnails - click on the individual photos and you will get the whole thing). And the third one in the top row is actually some kind of painting - now how amazing is that?

I so wish that I could take photographs like these. Most of them are just technically impossible for me. Well not because the equipment won't do it, but because I don't really know how to use the technology I do have on my camera. The one with the peas in the sieve for example is obviously a highly skilled photograph. Besides I don't have the eye to be able to place the subject just so. And I say they are still photographs, and of course they are in the sense that, like yesterdays 'moment in time' they are two-dimensional studies of peas carefully placed and lit, and carefully cropped and enhanced no doubt. And yet there is movement in almost all of them. The peas are tumbling, jumping and falling, the pods are opening and the water is dripping.

And are the peas all the same? Well almost. In some instances you would have to look very closely to see a difference, but Neil Gaman is fundamentally correct. They are all subtly different from each other - mostly according to their position in the pod. Like our position in our own family, in our society and so on.

Peas date back to the Bronze Age, when they were as big as marbles. It is believed that they were roasted by cave men and other tribes of the age, skinned - because the skins were very tough - and then eaten - or crushed into a mealy kind of purée. Over time the peas became smaller and tenderer, but they were still not eaten young from the vine as it were - they were dried and made into mush or soup. I even read of flour being made from the dried pods - from the peas themselves too of course.

"For centuries a tender pea, straight from the green pod, was regarded to be a near-lethal pellet and was dried to cure it of its 'noxious and stomach-destroying canker'. Farmers in Rome often left green peas on the vine in their fields to kill regaling rabbits, who, having better sense than the agrarians, flourished instead," Bert Greene

It was the Italians in the fifteenth century who developed the pea as we know it today, but it was one of Louis XIV's gardeners who really developed the climbing pea we know today, creating a mad passion for this new vegetable in the process, as noted by the king's mistress/wife Madame de Maintenon (they think he married her but they are not absolutely sure).

"The impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, the joy of eating them again, are the three questions that have occupied our princes for the last four days." Madame de Maintenon 1696

So having discovered that young peas were delicious in themselves we cultivated them and started devising things to do with them. And then we 'progressed' and froze them, because almost as soon as you pick them the sugar in the peas starts to turn to starch and that beautiful taste of a raw freshly picked pea disappears.

Opinion amongst cooks and writers varies a little between the virtues of fresh and frozen, although most pick fresh.

"I suspect I grew peas – four long rows supported with canes and string – to eat raw rather than cooked. I grew them for their white flowers, their shoots and curling tendrils for salad, the fun of popping their pods and tipping the tiny green peas into my mouth. There was the remotest intent of self-sufficiency. Mr Bird’s Eye need not have worried." Nigel Slater

And then you can have the joy of picking them and podding them on the same day and eating half of them as you do so. I used to sit on the steps down into our tiny garden in Hornchurch podding peas and eating quite a few as a did so. Only now do I see what a neat trick this was on my mother's part to get me to eat fresh peas. It was sort of forbidden fruit, always more tempting than fruit offered freely. Actually I don't think we grew our own peas, although I do remember growing beans. But we did buy them in the pod, and we did shell them, though I always dreaded coming across a maggot now and then. But yes I can still taste the fresh sweetness and the almost crunchiness. And you knew by the taste whether they were really fresh or not.

“If you don't like peas, it is probably because you have not had them fresh. It is the difference between reading a great book and reading the summary on the back” Lemony Snicket, Shouldn't You Be in School?

"I judge a pea to be prime only when it is served up near-raw." So says Bert Greene, and Beverley Sutherland Smith has another rather lovely way of almost cooking them.

"the best way to enjoy young peas from the garden was just to cook them in their pods and serve with a bowl of melted butter for dunking. The peas are dipped into the butter and then sucked out of the shell with much mess and some noise ensuing. Having tried this, I suggest it is a dish best eaten privately - or with a close friend who is equally comfortable with such sticky, drippy, uninhibited eating. It is of course only worth doing if the peas are truly babies and much of the pleasure is in the juice, which is sucked out with the tiny peas. However this at least is one dish which the frozen pea companies can never copy." Beverley Sutherland Smith

But what about frozen peas, which is what we mostly eat these days? You can still buy peas in the pod but they will have travelled at least a small distance and possibly been packaged, and so they are not going to be fresh. No if you want fresh peas then you are probably better to buy snow peas or sugar snap peas that just didn't exist in my particular little universe when I was young. Frozen peas, on the other hand, are frozen almost as soon as they are picked and so you would think were a very acceptable substitute. And indeed some chefs recommend them highly.

"Sure, freshly podded peas have about them a romance that will for ever be out of the frozen peas' league – they have, for example, that inimitable texture when thrown raw into a crunchy spring salad – but for flavour I always go for frozen." Yotam Ottolenghi

He is not alone. I have often come across instructions to use frozen peas if I don't grow my own. But frozen peas are blanched peas. They are not raw from the pod and so they are just not the same.

"The frozen pea caricatures the real thing, but so closely that it spoils it." Jane Grigson

If you are cooking your peas - a whole other subject - then, yes, frozen peas are the way to go. Although at the moment with the Covid19 scare rampant you might be lucky to find some. There were only about three small packets there the other day when I went to buy some. (I like to keep a packet in the freezer and I had just used up the last one.)

Maybe then you could resort to dried peas, and here I found a most unlikely champion - Maggie Beer.

"for risotto ... dried Surprise peas out of season ... have a more intense flavour and are less likely to break up than frozen peas."

Now who would have thought? In my mind dried peas, snap dried food of any kind is a sort of wartime food. Like processed peas in cans. Now I know that everyone scoffs at them but I used to love them. Now they had a distinct flavour all of their own. Maybe it's an English thing.

Which is also something to consider - the way that different nationalities seem to prefer some tastes over others. Another topic for another time, although I suppose it crops up here and there all the time. In the meantime - peas are beautiful things and artists of all kinds are amazing.

And let's not forget the sweet pea - a most beautiful flower and one of my childhood favourites. Now we did grow them. Here are two paintings - Pierre Bonnard on the left and Raoul Dufy on the right.

It's a beautiful day.



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