There was a recipe in one of the supplements the other day for fish, chips and mushy peas. It used a bag of blitzed-up frozen petit pois. The chef was Jamie Oliver. I sighed “Dear Lord, forgive him, for he knows not how to cook South Yorkshire’s national dish.”
As everyone in the county knows, true, proper, authentic mushy peas are made with dried marrowfat peas steeped in water overnight with a teaspoonful of bicarb, then rinsed, cooked, seasoned and spiked with vinegar (mint sauce for preference).
It’s so easy a child could do it. Yet I recall not that long ago a Very Well Known Chef in Sheffield confessing to me that the mushy peas on his menu came out of a tin.
It’s not that hard to spot imposters. Tinned stuff tends to be a bilious, Technicolor shade of green, from the colouring added. Putting that bicarb in will help preserve the colour, as well as softening the peas and reducing flatulence. The best chippies in the city make their own.
It’s the taste and the texture which make me want this dish time and again, earthy and mealie, exactly like a daal, only in this case it’s the mint instead of curry spices which add that extra savour.
Mushy peas are not just a northern thing. Where I grew up in Norwich the city’s market had several stalls selling just peas or pie and peas (and the same went for Great Yarmouth) although these were served in a thinner, soupier brew than we get in South Yorkshire.
Forever stamped on my memory will be the time I was eating peas on Yarmouth market when we were attacked by a plague of greenfly. You couldn’t see where the greenfly ended and the peas began.
Mushy peas are descended from one of Britain’s oldest dishes, pease pudding, served with or flavoured with bacon. Dorothy Hartley calls it “a solid satisfying dish.” She stipulates any dried pea although Traditional Foods in Britain has it made with yellow split peas, which makes it a sort of cousin to the Indian daal. Anyone with leftover mushy peas will find they have solidified into a pease pudding-like mass which can be reheated with more water. Enterprising chippies use it for mushy pea fritters in batter.
I understand that in Lancashire they make their mushy peas with parched or black peas but I have yet to taste them.
For those who like to eat with the seasons this is the right time for any dish with dried peas because they are associated with Lent, a time of fasting, hence the religious utterance earlier.
Here’s my recipe, for two. Soak 200g of dried peas in enough hot water to cover generous (they will expand) with a spoonful of bicarb overnight. Rinse well, cover with fresh water (you may need to top up) and resist the temptation to add salt, which will increase cooking times. Boil fast for five minutes, skimming off the scum. Then simmer until cooked. Now you can add salt and mint sauce. To reheat, add a little water. Cooking times vary enormously, depending on the age of the peas and how long they have been soaked.
Despite my love of South Yorkshire the best mushy peas you will ever taste are from the Magpie Café in Whitby.