A leading London restaurateur gushes about a simple green seed.
“We lived very simply—but with all the essentials of life well understood and provided for—hot baths, cold champagne, new peas and old brandy.”
Civilisation has a lot to answer for. When the Industrial Revolution picked up pace at the start of the 19th century, we burned fossil fuels with abandon, rubbing our hands together gleefully and congratulating ourselves on our mastery of science, advancement of industry and increased wealth. Mechanised production, steam turbines, internal combustion engines—we had it all and we were going to damn well use it wherever we jolly well could.
Fast forward 200 years and we have flattened the rainforests, destroyed the coral reefs, dissolved the ozone layer and poisoned the oceans with plastic. Worse still, half the planet is dying from hunger or treatable diseases, while the other half has an obesity crisis and patents the drugs the first half need.
Although civilisation’s food crimes are certainly less heinous, they are nonetheless still upsetting. Instant coffee: I’m looking at you. A product that bears such scant resemblance to the source material, it really deserves a different name. Bran flakes: what the hell is going on there? Humanity has somehow managed to create a breakfast cereal that tastes exactly like cardboard. (I don’t even know, hand on heart, what bran flakes are made from. Is it sawdust?) And Spam: just don’t get me started. The philistines behind the invention of this Frankenstein’s monster of a foodstuff deserve nothing less than being fed into the grinders that produce it. Even the word makes me shudder. Is it a portmanteau of “sputum” and “ham”?
Enter: the pea. Such a joyous expression of summer. Verdant, vibrant vegetables that are so thrillingly sweet that the best way to eat them is raw, straight from the pod, while still standing in your wellies in the veg patch. The satisfying pop as you bite into fresh peas makes me beam from ear to ear. Peas are the best example I know of the majesty of nature; pure perfection in the plant kingdom. Why then, dear God, would you decide to incarcerate them in a can? Tinned peas are the most compelling indication that civilisation has lost its way. Furthermore, if I were a religious man, I might say they were proof that Satan is real.
This recipe is a glorious celebration of flavours using the last of the summer’s English peas with plump, sweet scallops. It’s a heavenly collaboration that I first encountered in the 1990s at Rowley Leigh’s groundbreaking Notting Hill restaurant, Kensington Place. Like all perfect partnerships, it stays in the gustatory memory long after the taste has dwindled. Come to think of it, it’d go rather nicely with Churchill’s suggestion of a glass of cold champagne, too.
• 800g English peas in their pods (to yield 400g peas)
• Small handful mint leaves, finely shredded
• 100g unsmoked pancetta, cubed
• 20 fresh diver-caught scallops
• Large handful pea shoots
• Extra virgin olive oil
• Flaky sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
1 Start by podding the peas. Try to resist the very strong temptation to eat them as you go. If your willpower is anything like mine, you may want to buy 20 percent more than you need to compensate for those you snack on.
2 Bring a pan of salted water to a fierce boil and throw in the peas for no more than 1min. Drain and run under a cold tap for 1min until cooled. Shake off any excess water and transfer the peas to a large pestle and mortar. Add the shredded mint, a couple of pinches of flaky sea salt crunched between your fingers, and a good glug of olive oil. Briefly mash into a very coarse paste. You should still be able to see the shape of the crushed peas. Test for seasoning, adjust if necessary, and set aside. 3 Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and gently fry the pancetta cubes until golden brown and just starting to crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside.
4 Place a well-oiled griddle pan over a medium to high flame. Brush the scallops with olive oil and season with a pinch of salt. Fry for a minute each side until you see delicate grill lines. Distribute the crushed pea mixture onto four warmed plates, place the finished scallops on top, scatter the pancetta and the pea shoots, and drizzle over a little olive oil and a twist of black pepper.