Peas are not a modern crop and have been eaten in Europe since the dawn of agriculture, though the sweet, plump peas we enjoy today bear little resemblance to their early ancestors. The first peas were used as a dried crop, in much the same way we eat chickpeas today. It was the court of French King Louis XIV who introduced the craze of eating the peas fresh and green, in the late 1600s. It would have seemed a decadent thing to do, to devour your winter staples during the summer time of plenty. One of the ladies at court wrote, in 1696, “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too…will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness.”
We grow many of the old varieties here at Hampton Court Palace, partly because of their history, but also because they grow very tall, which gives a larger crop over a longer season.
Many of the more modern varieties have been bred for the frozen pea industry, so the plants tend to produce their peas all at once. Good heirloom varieties are ‘Champion of England’, ‘Magnum Bonum’ and ‘Bijou’. The latter is particularly nice, as it is eaten as a mange-tout, but each pod is as long as my hand! The plants will all get up to about 2m if you let them, so some stout supports are required. We use stakes as well as twiggy sticks, strung about with string so that the little twining tendrils have something to cling on to.
I find it best to sow inside in pots and trays of compost and then transplant – sowing direct in the soil seems to be an invitation for critters to munch on them. Start with the early varieties, such as ‘Oskar’ or ‘Feltham First’, which can be sown as early as February. These are low growing, but will appreciate some twiggy sticks for support. Other varieties can be sown from mid-March onwards.
Stagger the sowings in spring and you will be able to have a succession of harvests up until the weather gets hot. Lots of water seems to be key for a good crop.
Last year, early July was so hot here that the remaining peas frazzled in the sun and became tough and mealy. A few years ago, when we had a really cool, rainy summer, we had a fantastic pea harvest right the way through August – they must have been the only thing that enjoyed the weather that year.
Some varieties, such as ‘Parsley’, have been bred especially for their shoots, but with all varieties you can sow the seed quite thickly in a pot, keep it well watered and regularly pick off the tender shoots as they grow, even on a windowsill.
If you want the joy of peas but don’t have a garden, then a recently re-discovered heirloom pea may be for you. ‘Tom Thumb’ is a variety that only grows to about 20cm tall, making it perfect for pots. However, I think if I had limited space I would forgo eating the peas themselves and just grow some plants for their shoots.
One of the best things about peas though, is that once you’ve found a variety you like, it is very easy to save the seeds to grow next year. Just leave some pods unpicked and they will go brown and papery. Once they have dried on the plant, pick them off and voila you have next years seed for free!
Visit the Royal Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court.