GARDENING / The noble pea deserves a renaissance: Once people competed to serve up summer's first crop, but now few grow their own. Michael Leapman reports

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The Independent Culture
'COME TONIGHT, the peas are ready,' would not today rank high on anyone's list of Invitations I Just Couldn't Refuse. Yet Thomas Jefferson, the pea fancier and third President of the United States, recorded that the summons was awaited eagerly among his circle at Monticello in Virginia in the early 19th century, where there would be fierce competition to get the first mouthwatering green globules on to the table at the beginning of summer.

Since then, the noble pea has lost prestige among gardeners and gourmets. The convenience of the frozen kind - cheap and full of flavour - dampens the incentive to grow your own. In restaurants, the fad for designer cuisine has boosted the popularity of the sugar pea or mangetout, whose pods can so easily be symmetrically arranged to enhance decor at the expense of the small round things that roll around irritatingly and ruin the composition.

Years ago tall rows of peas, climbing 5ft or 6ft up their sticks, rivalled runner beans as the focus of attention in the vegetable garden. Today they are seldom seen. They have been largely superseded by dwarf varieties, no higher than 3ft, developed for commercial growers for ease of harvesting, then taken up by amateurs because they need no elaborate support.

Even the traditionalist television gardener Harry Dodson, in his BBC book Practical Kitchen Garden, admits that he stopped growing the tall sort in 1965. Seed merchants report that demand for tall peas has been dwindling for decades, and some catalogues no longer include them - although the old favourite Alderman is still offered by both Dobies and Johnsons.

'If people have only a small garden, they don't necessarily want a tall row of peas

sticking up in the middle,' says Colin Randel, vegetable specialist for Dobies and Suttons. 'But even dwarf varieties aren't grown as much as they were, because people don't want the bother of shelling them.'

Within the tall and dwarf categories, there are two further distinct types of pea. The hardiest - packed with starch and body - comes from round seeds. The sweetest, known as marrowfat, is grown from wrinkled seed in which some of the starch has been converted into sugar.

The most popular round-seeded pea, Feltham First, can be sown in November in

the south, to crop in late spring. But that fashion is fading and some feel strongly that it is not before time. Peas provoke passions.

'Feltham First is a terrible variety, not worth eating,' declares Geoffrey Gent, director of the Processors and Growers Research Organisation near Peterborough. 'There should be an European Commission regulation banning them. The trouble is that they are often the first peas people eat every year and they taste so awful that it puts them off buying any more for weeks.'

Consequently, only truly fanatical gardeners now compete to get the first peas on the table. That is why there has been a particular decline in sales of these early- cropping, round-seeded types. They are more mealy than the popular marrowfat varieties, such as Little Marvel (ready only a week or so later), Kelvedon Wonder and Onward; yet they have their uses and their supporters. Marshalls offers a roundseeded variety called Douce Provence which is certainly tastier than Feltham First.

If you want to make pea soup, pease pudding or mushy peas - a Northern favourite - the starchy round-seeded ones are a must.

Mr Gent, though, is still not convinced. 'If I wanted to make those,' he says scornfully, 'I'd buy dried peas from the supermarket' - and he has a point.

Amid such rancour and gloom among peamen, there are bright spots. While not all gimmicks and innovations last (the purple-podded pea, for instance, has all but vanished from the catalogues because it failed the flavour test), one to gain ground is the dwarf Markana, along with Twiggy, its newer variant. These have fewer leaves than regular varieties, but a lot more tendrils. Grown in blocks rather than rows, the plants cling to each other and do not even need low twigs as support. They were developed for commercial growers for ease of harvesting but are now in many catalogues.

The small, sweet petits pois are also becoming more popular, despite being fiddly to shell. The biggest growth of all, though, is in peas that are cooked while still in their pods - the sugar peas, or mangetouts, and the newer, plumper sugar snap peas. Their role in nouvelle cuisine and Chinese cooking is not the only reason for their popularity. They are economical, because nothing is thrown away, and they yield well. Perhaps as important, they do not freeze well and are expensive to buy fresh, which makes it worth growing your own.

The distinctive feature of both is their virtually stringless edible pod. Conventional peas need fibre in their shells, or they would be

even more tiresome to open. Sugar peas have been bred to reduce the fibre, and we are promised soon a variety with no fibre at all. Oregon Sugar Pod is the standard mangetout, offered in several catalogues. It grows to between 3ft-4ft so it needs a little support. The pods are best picked when the peas have barely started to swell.

Sugar snaps are an American invention, combining extra-thick edible pods with sweeter-than-usual peas, cooked intact. They were introduced to this country in 1979 and are steadily catching on. At first they were only available as a 6ft climber but now there are dwarf varieties and Thompson & Morgan's catalogue offers two - the early Honeypod and the maincrop Sugar Ann.

One particular peril with sugar snaps is infestation by maggots, pea moth caterpillars that burrow into the pods and then into the peas themselves. In shelled peas, maggots are easy to spot and discard. With sugar snaps you would not normally break open the pods but it is a good idea to dissect a few at random to make sure they are not infested.

The vogue for cooking pods whole has led to a welcome revival of the asparagus pea, not technically a pea at all but a bright red flower (it looks spectacular in a vegetable garden) which develops unusual pods with serrated edges, flavoured something like asparagus if picked when about an inch and a half long. This old species disappeared from the catalogues some years ago but has been reintroduced by Dobies, with some success.

Peas are an undemanding species. Because they produce their own nitrogen they do not need a rich soil. They do not want extremes either of heat or rain, and can do without much watering except when in flower: too wet, and they may develop foot rot.

They need protecting against birds as seedlings, but maggots are hard to combat: the only time a chemical spray will be effective is before the grubs are visible - about 10 days after the flowers first appear.

Other possible afflictions are the pea weevil, which eats away at the leaves but need not affect the crop; and fusarium wilt, which newer varieties resist.

Peas are among the least troublesome of vegetables. They have been around since the Bronze Age and in the Middle Ages were sold hot from carts in the street. Culpeper's Complete Herbal (1649) called them 'a pleasant, grateful, nourishing food . . . good to sweeten the blood'. It is time for a pea revival.

For the catalogues mentioned above, ring these numbers: Dobies 0803 616281; Johnsons 0205 351430; Marshalls 0945 583407; Suttons 0803 612011; Thompson & Morgan 0473 688821.

(Photograph omitted)