Mushy peas have a decidedly unusual flavour to the uninitiated, a somewhat radioactive looking appearance, and a texture which for the most part disinclines itself to adequate description1. However in the UK, this food which really ought not to 'work' has something of an iconic status, in certain circles at least.
Certainly not a sophisticated food, and most unlikely to be found on any remotely high-class restaurant menus2, mushy peas are, on their own, somewhat lacking. But put them next to freshly deep-fat-fried fish and chips, or highly calorific steaming-hot pie and mash, and somehow, for some people, the resulting combination of aromas, flavours and textures works remarkably well, creating the epitome of comfort food.
These esteemed peas are not necessarily a UK-wide traditional food, but in some areas are enjoying a revival of popularity along with more interest in old British recipes. TV chefs often include mushy peas in their repertoire, which has helped this humble food to become more appealing and fashionable. After all, they are healthy to eat!
Traditional mushy peas are made with dried marrowfat peas which require an overnight soaking. Home made mushy peas do not contain the range of additional ingredients and luminous green colouring which some commercially made mass-produced (tinned) versions contain. If you make them yourself they are really rather nutritious. Like all legumes, peas are a good source of protein.
Marrowfat peas, Pisum sativum variety 'Maro', are a traditional, starchy, large-seeded variety of pea, which, unlike ordinary garden peas, are not harvested fresh. Instead they are allowed to mature on the plant, and are harvested after they have begun to dry in situ. They are sown in from March to June and harvested in May to September, growing for roughly two weeks longer than other pea varieties before harvest. Marrowfat peas are grown commercially in the East, Midlands and South of the UK. Besides making mushy peas, Marrowfat peas are also used to make wasabi peas3.
Garden peas have been part of human diet for an estimated approximate 8,000 years, being particularly favoured by both the Greeks and Romans. Interestingly, in previous centuries peas were rarely eaten fresh. Instead, the harvested peas were dried to preserve them and to facilitate ease of transport. They were then used in stews and of course soups, including pea soup. It is possible therefore, to imagine that it may have even been the Romans who invented mushy peas; as what are mushy peas, if not a modified pea soup recipe? However, little historical evidence exists to suggest the origin of the mushy pea, and the term itself has little documentary evidence before the mid-1970s.
How to Cook Mushy Peas
You may find it difficult to find actual marrowfat peas to cook from scratch. Places to look for them include health food shops, where a wide range of pulses is usually kept in stock. Another good place to look is in either the smaller traditional grocers or the really large supermarkets, in the whole food section. Do not confuse them with the green split pea, or the dried yellow pea. Both of these are good varieties for other pea recipes, such as pease pudding or pea soup, but they won't make actual mushy peas.
You've Found Some, Now What?
To serve four people:
- 8oz or 250 grams marrowfat peas
- Cold water to cover
- Either the 'steeping tablet4' which has come with the peas, or a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.
Leave the peas to soak in a basin, for at least 12 hours. Up to 16 hours is preferable. Leave the peas in a cool place, but not in the fridge.
Discard the water, and rinse the peas. Remove any blemished or discoloured peas.
Place in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, add one pint fresh boiling water, a half teaspoonful of salt and a half teaspoonful of sugar. Bring back to the boil but watch the pan carefully as the peas have a tendency to boil over.
Simmer gently and carefully for approximately 25 minutes. As the peas cook, they will absorb the water and start to turn to a purée. Be careful at this stage not to let them burn to the bottom of the pan. Stir carefully. If you stir too vigorously the peas will lose their consistency completely. You want to aim for the majority of the peas to be nice and soft5, but still pea-shaped. If the peas are too liquid, just keep cooking until all the water has either evaporated or been absorbed.
If you feel your peas are too bland, you may wish to pep them up a bit by adding a tiny dash of Worcestershire Sauce, some vinegar (balsamic is good but turns the peas a bit brown) or even some mustard.
In Sheffield we add Henderson's Relish to ours, but then that's a very local thing. - Sho
Serve the peas while warm. They accompany fish and chips or homemade meat and potato pie. Another favourite combination is mushy peas and faggots.
I've Found Some Ready-to-eat Mushy Peas!
Lucky you! Some food manufacturers have realised the goodness in this traditional food. You can now find mushy peas in the freezer section of your supermarket, either in small cartons that just need a few minutes in the microwave, or larger packs of 'ready-soaked' mushy peas. This type merely requires the second stage of cooking to produce mushy peas like your grandmother made. The advantage of this is that you don't have to plan your supper early on during the day before.
Just avoid the sort that comes in tins, or the sloppy sort your chippy dishes out.
I Made Too Many!
This may be hard to believe, as there are usually not enough to go round. But if you do have a surplus, they will keep for 24 hours in the refrigerator. They freeze really easily and will defrost like a dream. A tip would be to soak more than you need for one family meal, and freeze the rest, before cooking. Then simply cook the second portion the next time your meal requires this green comfort food.