What was the latest fashion at court of Versailles in 1696? Why English peas of course, hadn’t you heard?
The ladies of Versailles knew a good thing when they tasted it. In the late 17th Century fresh, green English peas were all the rage. It may seem odd to us, since today peas are seen as quite a pedestrian vegetable. Thanks to Mr. Birdseye we can get them all year round. But until about 400 years ago, the only peas in existence were much larger, starchy, field peas which were usually dried and then used to make pease porridge (split pea soup). This is the way peas had been eaten for thousands of years.
Imagine the stir caused by small, sweet, green peas that were meant to be eaten fresh. This new variety was developed by English gardeners, and soon became the object of singular desire at Versailles. The courtiers paid astronomical prices for the delicate, verdant, pleasure that is the English pea.
Madame de Maintenon (King Louis XIV’s second wife) wrote that, “Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal Table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a madness. ”
English peas (sometimes called garden peas or green peas) are only in the market for a short time here in the northeast, so run out and get some while you have the chance. When shopping for English peas, look for pods that are plump but not too fat. The really swollen ones will have larger peas in them which won’t taste as sweet. Please don’t buy pre-shelled peas, they start to loose their sweetness as soon as they come out of the pod. For that same reason, don’t open them up until right before they’re going in the pot. You’ll need a lot of peas, and I mean A LOT. One pound of unshelled peas will yield about a cup of the little suckers, so make sure you get enough.
Shelling takes time, but once you get the hang of it, it can be quite meditative and relaxing. A few tips: Pour yourself a nice cold drink, a Campari and Soda is a classic summer cocktail, just the thing to rouse the appetite. Put on some good music, if you don’t already know about Radio Paradise, give them a try. Finally, use a nice deep bowl, so when you run your thumb down the inside of the pod to loosen the peas, they don’t go bouncing all over the floor. Oh, and if you’re feeling frugal, save the empty pods and use them as an ingredient in homemade vegetable stock.
This soup makes for a refreshing supper on a hot summer night. The mint (a classic pairing with English peas) gives a heftier green undertone to the light, sweet peas and the crème Fraîche enriches the soup without overwhelming the delicate flavors.
Fresh (and Fashionable) English Pea Soup
Adapted from Ina Garten
1 small onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped (white and light green parts only)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cups shelled fresh English peas (about 3 lbs. unshelled)
3 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium commercial stock
⅓ cup chopped fresh mint, plus a bit more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons crème fraîche
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and cook the leek and onion over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes, until soft.
Add the chicken stock to the pot, turn up the heat and bring it to a boil. Add the peas and cook for only 3-5 minutes, Do not overcook them, they should be a bright green and still pop in your mouth when you taste them.
When the peas are done, remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped mint, and salt and ground pepper to taste.
Puree the soup with a hand blender, or in batches using a countertop blender or food processor. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl and a sprinkling of the remaining chopped mint on top.