Ode to the pea
There are a couple of words in the global dictionary that have Swedish roots. Ombudsman, for example. And smorgasbord – or as we say, smörgåsbord – which essentially is a the huge buffet us Swedes enjoy at Christmas.
Tables clad in red cloths are laden with several types of herring, just as many variants on salmon, smoked eel (big no-no these days: eels are an endangered species), mackerel, meatballs (duh!) ribs, sausages, mustard-glazed ham, smoked reindeer meat, potatoes, red cabbage, brown cabbage (normal cabbage prepared with syrup), kale, cheeses of all kinds, hard bread, soft bread and then, to top it all off, a huge selection of desserts, the primus inter pares being the cold rice porridge that is mixed with whipped cream and sliced oranges (we call it Rice a la Malta). There are some healthy alternatives, like the lutfisk (dried fish that is soaked back into shape for fifteen days prior to Christmas. The result is gelatinous and somewhat…umm…bland) but mostly this is a meal that requires a heroic approach to eating, the food washed down with schnaps and beer.
In Sweden, we consider the smorgasbord to be traditional. In actual fact, it is a relatively recent addition to our Christmas traditions. After all, until some decades into the twentieth century, Sweden was a very, very poor country, the majority of our population being either tenant farmers or workers in the traditional Swedish industries such as mining and saw mills. Wages did not stretch to much meat. Neither did they stretch to such luxuries as cheese or bread baked with wheat. The majority of our population survived on potatoes, barley and cabbage. Prior to the 18th century (when the potato was upgraded from suspicious tubular best fed to animals to a crop worthy of human consumption) it was cabbage – and peas.
So today, dear peeps, I give you the riveting history of the pea, this humble but oh, so important companion through the centuries.
I thought we’d start with the story about the princess and the pea. For those who’ve never heard of this famous literary combo, this fairy tale by 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, 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 story. (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, one of those must-have foodstuffs that ensured 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 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…
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 the 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, as 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.
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. Those higher up the financial hierarchy 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. Growing peas was a fail-safe way of ensuring there was food on the table throughout the winter.
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 Sweden, Thursday used to be 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.
After such a meal – just like after a full Swedish smörgåsbord – 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.