The humble pea is one of the unsung heroes of the British kitchen as far as I'm concerned. It's the making of egg and chips, the perfect complement to sausage and mash and the icing on the cake of fish pie – a little piece of summer fresh from the freezer all year round. Perhaps because of this very ubiquity, we tend to take peas for granted, which means we don't make the most of their short but glorious season, and the simple, rustic joy of podding peas in the sunshine while pretending to be Ma Larkin from the Darling Buds of May.
One Madame de Maintenon, writing at the end of the 17th century, reminds us of what a treat fresh peas must have been before Clarence Birdseye stepped into the fold, as well as how very idle the French aristocracy really were: "The question of peas continues. The anticipation of eating them, the pleasure of having eaten them and the joy of eating them again are the three subjects that our princes have been discussing for four days ... It has become a fashion – indeed, a passion".
This rare delicacy deserve to be more than just a side dish: peas should roll into the spotlight. Crushed on a chunky piece of toast or gently braised with lettuce and spring onions, they make a fine dinner all on their own, but one of my favourite ways to serve them is in a vivid green soup, with a far finer, sweeter flavour than the split pea broths so comforting in cold weather. What you lose in bouncy texture you gain in show-stopping emerald razzmatazz. And that's never a bad thing.
Fresh versus frozen
Of course, just about anything you can do with fresh peas can also be done with frozen – so is there any point in all that shelling, if you don't enjoy it as much as I do? After all, even Nigel Slater calls frozen peas a "dependable delight" in his book Tender (although he admits they lack "romance"), and Jane Grigson prefaces the recipe for June pea soup in her Vegetable Book by saying that in winter, "frozen peas do quite well; although some of the pure directness is lost".
Like Tamasin Day-Lewis, who seems easy on the fresh or frozen front in her recipe in All You Can Eat, Mrs Grigson suggests adding "three or four of the best and brightest pods" to the soup as well as their contents, presumably for their sweet, intensely pea-like flavour. I make all my soups with fresh peas, apart from Rose Elliot's green pea and mint soup from the 30-Minute Vegetarian, which, presumably for reasons of speed, calls for the frozen variety.
To be honest, all the soups are deliciously sweet, but, although I'd be hard pressed to pick out the fresh from the frozen, Jane Grigson and Tamasin Day-Lewis's soups do seem to have a particularly strong pea-like flavour, which I attribute to the pods. Pureeing them along with the peas, as Mrs Grigson suggests, proves a bad idea however – it means passing the soup through a sieve before reheating it and, as well as the remaining fibrous pieces of pod, I lose much of the thick green pea-like sludge at the bottom. Perhaps my sieve was simply too fine, but it seems a shame nevertheless.
If you are using fresh peas, buy them just before you make the soup – the sugars are quick to convert to distinctly less tasty starch after harvesting. Look for the smaller, sweeter petits pois if you're buying frozen.
Liquid: a stock check
The principle ingredient in any soup is, of course, liquid. Delia and Jane Grigson stick to water, Rose Elliot goes for vegetable stock and Lindsey Bareham uses chicken in her Celebration of Soup recipe – so, when Tamasin Day-Lewis gives me the choice of chicken or ham stock, I plump for the latter, in the interests of diversity.
I find all the stocks too salty however – they overpower, rather than complement the sweetness of the peas. Jane Grigson's soup is a little too thin and subtly-flavoured for my liking, but Delia's hit the nail on the head flavourwise: her soup tastes cleanly and simply of vegetables.
In this instance, I'm with Marcel Boulestin, who, in his popular 1931 cookbook What Shall We Have Today? is firm on the water point, claiming that "when made with the addition of stock [soups] lose all character and cease to be what they were intended to be. The fresh pleasant taste is lost". I disagree: although more robust flavours can take it, peas, I think, should be left to their own delicate devices.
Cream is a popular addition to pea soup, somewhat puzzlingly from my point of view as it's not the first ingredient that springs to mind for a light, summery supper. Jane Grigson uses whipping cream, and Lindsey Bareham double cream and egg, while Delia stirs in a little creme fraiche at the end. I think cream in the soup itself blunts the sweet freshness of the peas, but I do like the tanginess of the creme fraiche as a complement – you can stir it in, or not, as suits your mood.
Rose Elliot uses a potato to add richness and body, giving her soup a fluffy, earthy quality. It's nice, but more of a wintery flavour.
Alliums and herbs
Alliums of some sort are a must in a soup – Rose and Tamasin go for plain and simple onions, Lindsey for shallots, and Jane and Delia for spring onions. The sweetness of the shallot is good with the peas, but the herbaceousness of the spring onions is even nicer. I don't think the garlic clove Jane also adds is necessary though: I want to keep this simple.
Mint is obviously a popular choice: all my recipes use it in some way, but I prefer it stirred in at the end, as Delia, Jane and Tamasin suggest, rather than simmered with the peas, as in Lindsey and Rose's recipes; it keeps the taste fresher.
Lindsey's fresh green pea soup is the only one which doesn't purée the soup before serving – instead the peas, shallots and ham bob about in a mixture of water, chicken stock, double cream and egg. It's a surprisingly elegant dish, the sweetness of the peas contrasting with the silky richness of the liquid, but it's not the kind of pea soup I'm after. I also find Tamasin and Jane Grigson's too thin – I don't want something to stand a spoon up in, but Delia and Rose's slightly thicker soups at least hint at the original texture of the peas.
As I'm not using stock, a hint of savoury pork, always a winner with peas and their ilk, is very welcome here. Delia and Tamasin's bacon works better than Lindsey's ham, because the fat melts in the pan, releasing its flavour into the soup. If you'd prefer to keep the soup vegetarian, however, leave out the bacon and use vegetable stock instead.
Lindsey adds the juice of a lemon to her soup – although it's a little sour for my taste, I like the idea of a touch of freshness, so in a squeeze goes.
Delia adds lettuce and spinach to her soup, which, as she observes, gives it a gorgeous dark green colour – it's very nice indeed, but this soup should be all about the peas. She also adds a grating of nutmeg, which I think of as a wintery flavour. This particular soup should be all about the delicate, sweet flavours of summer, whatever time of year you end up making it. (And incidentally, it's equally good cold.)
Perfect pea soup
4 spring onions, chopped
2 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, chopped
450g shelled peas (about 1.2kg of pods) plus 5 pods
750ml water (or vegetable stock if you're omitting the bacon)
Pinch of sugar, optional
Squeeze of lemon juice
Small bunch of mint, chopped and creme fraiche, to serve
1. Heat the butter over a medium heat in a large pan and add the spring onions and bacon. Sweat until cooked, but not coloured.
2. Add the peas and pods if using and stir well, then pour in 750ml water. Bring to the boil, then simmer until the peas are tender (about 10 minutes depending on size).
3. Remove the pods and puree the soup using a blender or hand blender then add the lemon juice and season to taste – you may also wish to add a pinch of sugar depending on the sweetness of your peas. Add a little more water if you'd prefer a thinner soup.
4. Reheat if serving hot and serve garnished with chopped mint and a swirl of creme fraiche.
Is soup the best thing to do with a glut of peas, or do you have other bright ideas? Or do you just prefer them served with a lick of butter and a sprig of mint? And what other soups suit summer?