Sweet, tender, fresh peas, podded and cooked within minutes of being picked are the quintessential summer vegetable. Yet unless you grow your own or are lucky to find some just picked peas for sale the next best thing comes from a freezer counter.
Since the 1940s, the Birds Eye name has been synonymous with frozen peas thanks to Clarence Birdseye’s revolutionary flash freezing process which has transformed the way we buy them. To retain their sweetness and tenderness, peas need to be eaten or processed within a couple of hours, otherwise the sugars turn to starch and their quality deteriorates. Quickly freezing the fresh peas keeps them at their best. By also selecting growers who are within close proximity to their factories, Bird Eye ensure that the peas are harvested, processed and frozen within 2½ hours.
Whilst Birds Eye still dominate the frozen pea market, a group of farmers from the Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York is making its mark in the industry. The Swaythorpe Growers came together last year to produce Yorkshire Peas, the first farmer owned brand of peas. They grow a single variety of peas, celebration, chosen for its small size, sweetness and tenderness. Complex planning ensures that each field of peas is planted and harvested at the optimum time. Expensive state of the art pea harvesters or viners deftly cut the pods from the plants, remove the peas and return the empty pods back to the fields. Less advanced, but equally effective, technology in the form of a tenderometer is used to test the tenderness of the peas. It literally squashes a sample of peas to measure their resistance. Once the peas are harvested they are transported to their own processing plant, matching Birds Eye’s time of 2½ hours from field to freezer.
Simply boiled or steamed with no other adulteration than perhaps a little butter (if you can!), peas seem to go with just about anything. Mint and peas are a classic pairing. From the subtly of adding a sprig of mint to the cooking water to the addition of a handful of chopped mint to the finished dish. Lemon is another flavour that works well too.
Peas add a delicate flavour and vibrant colour to soups. Try combining them with courgettes and mint for a lovely summery soup, served chilled if the weather is warm. Or if it's as cold as it is today on this remarkably un-June-like day then it most definitely needs to be served hot! Braised lettuce and peas make a deliciously different side dish to accompany fish, lamb or chicken as do these garlicky crushed peas, shown above.
For the ultimate summer treat, you really can't beat growing your own peas. Guaranteed not many might make it to the pan, but you've got to keep on top of the quality control. Right? And really, who can pick and shell peas without eating at least a few of the raw ones!
There are two types of pea seeds - wrinkled and round. The round ones are hardier and will produce an early crop. Either sow rows of peas direct into the prepared bed, placing each seed about 5cm deep and 5cm apart or start them off in modules or lengths of guttering under cover. Plant the seedlings out when they reach about 10cm. (The latter method helps to protect the peas from mice who love to eat both the seeds and the young seedlings). Place a line of small twiggy sticks or pea netting alongside the plants to give them some support.
Successional sowing will ensure a longer cropping season. The easiest way to tell if the peas are ready is to pick a pod and try one. Harvest them as soon as they are ready as leaving them on the plants will shorten the cropping time.
Recommended varieties include Feltham First and Meteor (round) and Hurst Green Shaft (wrinkled).