Thursday, February 25, 2016

Of peas, princesses and pancakes

by Anna Belfrage

I’m assuming we’ve all heard the story about the princess and the pea. For those who haven’t, this Danish tale by the masterful H.C. Andersen is the story of a princess who had lost her way in life and so arrived bedraggled and wet at a castle, begging a bed for the night. Being without any useful identifying objects such as a crown, an ermine cape or a frog prince, she was naturally met with suspicion by her hosts to be, but the lady of the castle – and the mother of the potential bridegroom, a dashing prince – knew just how to verify if the wet little thing with curly hair down to her waist was a real princess. All she needed was a pea.

Said pea was placed under 20 mattresses. The princess was then carefully tucked in (the prince hovered hopefully in the background more than willing to offer a goodnight kiss. His lady mother told him to forget it: her precious son would not press his lips to anything but the real thing.) Come morning, the overnight guest was black and blue all over, complaining mightily about the lumpy mattresses. The lady of the castle smiled. Their surprise guest was thereby revealed as a true princess, for only a girl of such rare sensibilities would have felt one itty-bitty pea through all those feather mattresses. Ergo, there was a wedding and a happily ever after.

As a child, I had major problems with this fairy tale. (I had problems with quite a few, starting with the rather obnoxious custom of kissing a frog to find your prince) In this case, I simply could not understand how a pea would survive being squashed under 20 mattresses. Peas in my world were soft and green. In H.C. Andersen’s world, they were mostly yellow and hard. In fact, for most of our species relationship with this versatile little legume the pea has been dried and yellow. The pea, you see was a staple, one of those must-have foodstuffs that would ensure the household survived the winter.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world without potatoes – one of our staples. Or chocolate. Yes, I realise chocolate is not considered a staple, but for those addicted to the stuff it most certainly is. However you want to categorise chocolate, it wasn’t around until relatively recently. Nor were potatoes. Or orange carrots. Or tomatoes. Or popcorn. But the pea, ladies and gentlemen, most certainly was.

Humans have been eating peas for eons. Like many other legumes, the pea comes with the benefit of preserving itself – if you leave it to dry on its vine it will do just that, and instead of harvesting when the pods are juicy and green you wait until the summer is gone and pick the desiccated pods and the hard, yellow peas instead.

These days, most of us only eat the pea in its green variety – and chances are we’ll pull out a bag from the freezer whenever we feel inclined to produce a nice Crème Ninon or just have some peas with our wiener schnitzel (as an aside, a wiener schnitzel without peas is simply no wiener schnitzel) Some of us – notably those who live in the northern parts of England – enjoy consuming our peas as mushy peas, often served with fish and chips. Yes, I know mushy peas are made with dried marrowfat peas (which are greenish), and no, I’ll not share my little story about when I visited a plant that produced mushy peas – will put you off them forever...

Few of us take the time to buy the peas fresh and sit down to shell them. I suffered a major bout of nostalgia when watching a recent episode in the rather excellent crime series Shetland where DI Perez (Douglas Henshall) was shelling his peas. Made me love him even more…

The pea originates from the eastern Mediterranean area. In Georgia, they’ve been munching peas for over 7 000 years, and I’d hazard that originally pod and peas were eaten while green. Our distant ancestors lived a nomadic hand-to-mouth existence, so storing stuff was not high on the agenda. Over the years, the pea was domesticated and more and more it was grown for its dry fruit. Roman legionaries foraged for wild peas to complement their rations, and already the old Romans had a predilection for mushy peas. They just never got round to adding the fish and chips.

In the Middle Ages, green peas were a luxury item. Rich people served them to impress, a not-so-subtle reminder that they were rich enough not to worry about their food stores during the following winter. In general, a very small percentage was harvested while green, but in years of famine – and it is important to keep in mind that with depleted stores food was scarce until the next harvest, not just beyond the last frost – the poor and hungry were given leave to pick the peas while green so as not to die of starvation.

Breaking bread
Other than the pea, people of the Middle Ages consumed huge quantities of cabbage and barley. Peas, cabbages, leeks and barley were all used to make various types of pottages – served with bread. It is estimated at least 50% of the daily calorie intake came from bread – baked with wheat in the more affluent/civilised areas of Europe, with barley and rye in the eastern & northern backwaters.

A pottage was essentially a soup. It varied in thickness depending on the means of the household. In poorer homes, the pottage could well consist of cabbage, herbs and a handful of crushed barley or oats to thicken it. In richer homes, a pottage could include meat and various vegetables. Sweet varieties included almonds and dried fruits, were thickened with eggs and eaten with a lot of lip-smacking.

The dry pea was excellent for making pottage – pease pottage. It had the benefit of being rich in nutrients and was relatively cheap. Add some thyme and garlic, and it tasted quite nice as well. Those higher up the financial scale would combine their pease pottage with ham, those somewhat poorer would instead make their pease pottage very thick – when it became a pease pudding (similar to humus in texture) and was quite filling. It could be eaten hot and cold, it could be eaten quite, quite old as indicated in this nursery rhyme:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old

I must say I am somewhat doubtful at eating something that has been “in the pot” for nine days. I’m guessing medieval tummies were more robust than ours.

There were other benefits to cultivating peas. They did not require pampering. Peas could be planted early in spring as they do not require high temperatures to germinate. They didn’t need much sun. They were easy to harvest and, as stated above, easy to store. That being said, there were a lot of superstitions about the planting of peas, such as the fact that they should only be planted during a waning moon and preferably on a Wednesday or Saturday as otherwise the birds might make off with the planted peas. Apparently, birds back then took the days of the week very seriously indeed.

If you eat the same stuff every day, reasonably you’ll get tired of it. For generations, Europeans ate cabbage and peas, cabbage and peas, more peas, more cabbage. Which is probably why we no longer eat quite as much cabbage – or peas. And IF we eat it, chances are we’ll eat the cabbage shredded in a coleslaw (our medieval forebears would be quite horrified: eat it raw?) and the peas when they are at their greenest. We, in difference to our ancestors, do not need to worry about where tomorrow’s dinner will come from. We, unlike our ancestors, rather have the problem of having too much to eat around us. We, just like our ancestors, tend to have a predilection for all things sweet and fat – such foodstuffs were important in the distant past, when that extra layer of fat could well be the difference between survival or death – and green peas are substantially sweeter than the dried variety.

Still: to this day, that ancient dish the pease pottage still survives – although nowadays we tend to call it split-pea soup. What is truly interesting about pea soup is that it exists in most of the traditional European cuisines. The recipes are surprisingly similar – thyme, peas and broth – and accordingly the end result is always a creamy yellow thick soup that requires little in the way of extras to leave you agreeably full.

In my country, Sweden, until very recently Thursday was the traditional pea-soup day. In fact, to some extent it still is – the determined Swede will always be able to find at least one restaurant in the vicinity that has pea-soup on its Thursday menu. The dried peas are left to soak overnight, and then they’re cooked in a rich ham-broth with plenty of thyme and served with mustard and pork sausage. Yummy. Even better, after the pea soup come Swedish pancakes with raspberry jam and whipped cream – essentially one of those meals that require a nap to digest, which is probably why it no longer is the standard Thursday lunch. Productivity suffers while all the semi-comatose workers do some discreet shut-eye.

courtesy Calle Fridén
It is somewhat coincidental that today is in fact a Thursday. It is even more coincidental that the peas have been soaking overnight, that I have fresh thyme on my cutting board and a nice piece of salted pork that has been simmering slowly for quite some time by now. Some hours from now, I’ll be dipping my spoon into a dish that essentially is identical to that my forebears enjoyed, back in the time of the great Canute. In difference to these my ancestors – whom I imagine as being simple, uneducated folk, with little to their name – I shall round off my meal with pancakes.

After such a meal, the bed beckons. And I can assure you that should anyone see fit to place a dried pea or two beneath my mattress I will complain – loudly – about how lumpy and hard my bed is. I may not be a princess, but dried peas make uncomfortable bed companions. Trust me, I’ve tried.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.

Anna Belfrage is also the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.





11 comments:

  1. And in UK, a really thick fog is called a 'pea-souper'!

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    1. But I dare say it is not quite as tasty :)

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  2. No mushy peas for me, thanks. Some foods simply do not translate well. Lovely blog. It 'translates 'very well. Thank you for sharing, Anna.

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    1. Thank you! And mushy peas are actually very nice :)

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  3. Excellent article. I'm very fond of peas and cabbage and am very grateful that there is always an abundance of them around in our time ;-)

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    1. Thank you. Mind you, there was plenty of cabbage and peas around back then as well. They were, however, sadly lacking in chocolate...

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  4. I love that fairy tale. How fun to learn that pease pottage is similar to our modern-day split pea soup, which I love! Thanks so much for sharing!

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  5. I love that fairy tale. How fun to learn that pease pottage is similar to our modern-day split pea soup, which I love! Thanks so much for sharing!

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  6. I enjoyed this article so much. I had no idea peas had been around so long. My husband and I use dried peas to make a tasty coconut chutney that is served with a flat pancake-like dish called dosai. We also like split pea soup -- without the ham, as we're vegetarians. I've never had "mushy peas," though I'd like to try them some time.

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