"Yorkshire caviar", a British Comfort Food

"Fish and chips without mushy peas? That's just not right!"

Seven-plus years into my life in the USA, and people are still asking me what I miss about England. Most of them are food-related, things like pork pies, Cornish pasties, The Pub, fish and chips, the wide variety of street food. I miss rain; living in California's Central Valley, there's not a lot of it, even in our wet winter season. I regret leaving behind narrow streets, ancient buildings and the BBC on the radio. Some of these things I can find; Cornish pasties are available quite locally, or by frozen-mail-order. There are narrow streets and older buildings an hour's drive away, and I can put the sprinkler on for pretend rain. There is even a fish-and-chip shop in Davis, and I have eaten there, but it lacks the atmosphere of a true British experience. And most of all, it lacks comfort. It lacks mushy peas.

So what is mushy peas? Well, firstly, it's a comfort food, filling and warm. Once a staple of a poor family's diet, the dish at its simplest comprises boiled marrowfat peas, and at this level, it is, as Willie Rushton once said "the world's almost only grey food". That he said this of porridge may tell you something of the nature of the beast. Yer basic pease made in this fashion is fairly bland, and the kind of grey-green that I think a space-alien's skin should be. In fact, given this unappetising description, it's hard to imagine why it's so popular.

But popular they are. In most parts of England, a decent chippy will have them on the menu. When sold, they are green, with a texture ranging from a thick soupyness to a fairly stodgy pottage. The green colour is achieved by cheating with food colourings, the texture depends on the supplier or recipe. Most of the cheaper shops buy their supplies in tins, but (rarely, these days) some do make them in-house. If you are fortunate enough to have such an emporium close at hand, relish the fact. But do not tell me, as I will become jealous.

How Mushy Peas Are Made

The basic marrowfat pea is large, starchy and tough as old boots. Like its distant cousin the chickpea (aka garbanzo bean), it is picked when fully mature and dried, not young and juicy. Preparation begins in the same way as the garbanzo, being soaked overnight and simmered until soft enough to eat. Buying packets of pease in the supermarket is the best way forward, and ofttimes the packet will contain a tablet of bicarbonate of soda (more about that later). In some areas you may also be fortunate enough to be able to buy in bulk.

Some folk will tell you to use split peas, and that can work. There are also those, including the dreadful Jamie Oliver, who would have you make this with fresh garden peas. Yes, you will have a pea dish, but it will lack that quality of true British "sticks-to-your-ribs" quality that is traditional. Mushy peas simply demand to be made with the correct ingredients, Mister Oliver, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. I have also seen recipes that add meat or meat broth, but in my opinion, that's more associated with pease pudding.

So let us begin. Eight ounces of pease will make for a good helping for four people. If buying them loose or in bulk, check for foreign bodies like bugs and grit, and wash them thoroughly. Place them in a bowl or pan and cover with lots of water, seriously lots. I err on the side of too much, although a pint and a half will suffice. (Time was, I'd convert to metric and whatnot, but not today.)

Now, to the baking soda. Some people add this because it does help preserve the greenness of the dish, but at a cost, in that it reduces the content of vitamin C and the B vitamins. The choice is yours; personally if I want the buggers green, I will add some food colouring, or cook up and mash some garden peas and stir them in before serving.

Once they are well-soaked, they will be plump and firm as fresh peaches, and can be cooked. Add them to a pint of water in a pan, add a little salt and bring them to the boil, then simmer for around twenty minutes, stirring every few minutes. The peas will begin to break down and in time, form a fairly thick soup, and this is where you can ring the changes and play with the texture of the dish. Adding more or less water changes the dish radically. Some people like the idea of the stodgy mass that seems to have become the norm, but as I prefer mine a little moister, I tend to leave a little more water. If I have time, and think enough about it, I take about a third out when they are still al dente, so there's an even wider textural range.

At this point, the dish is more or less ready. Some people cook it longer to create a more even texture, some people mash it up with a fork. I wait until the liquor is beginning to really thicken, and add a knob of butter and some pepper and cook for a minute or two longer.

There is also a cheat for speeding up the preparation time, one I use with many pulses. This involves fast-boiling the pease for ten minutes, and letting them stand in that water for an hour or so. I say "or so" because unless I'm in a big hurry, I leave them for an hour and a half, but they can be left for some hours in the fridge. Then, I drain and wash the pease and cook them up.

Serving Options

As a little wertperch, I was taken to Nottingham's Goose Fair, and at the time, one of the food treats available (alongside candyfloss, toffee apples and "cocks on sticks"¹) was a bowl of mushy peas served with mint sauce. Seriously warming on a damp and chilly autumn day, and very, very popular.

There are many local serving options, such as in the Midlands and North, where a popular dish is the "pea mix" of chips smothered in peas. I've seen spoonfuls of it deep-fried in batter and served as a "pea fritter", I've had bowls of it with sprinklings of pepper and malt vinegar, and in one wonderful meal in Malham, ladled over a meat pie.

The possibilities are endless, and I admit that it's a dish I manage to miss whenever I buy fish and chips. Perhaps I need to go on a crusade to introduce the dish to every American "chippy". Wish me luck.

¹ A sugar confection, shaped like a cockerel. On a stick. See cock on a stick.

DonJaime says re Mushy peas: Very complete, very informative to the higgerant savage. But you neglect to mention how irredeemably revolting they are.


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