Monday 25 June 2007
Heritage vegetable review
Pea: Golden Sweet
Age: unknown, but pre-1860
Background: Yellow-podded. Historically significant for its probable role in the development of genetic science
My supplier: Real Seed Catalogue
Pros: gorgeous, vigorous, healthy, high-yielding, multi-purpose, tasty
Cons: none, other than that the flowers never fully open
(The first of my 2007 heritage veg reviews, but they won't all be this long!)
When you start delving into heritage peas you find that some of them are very quirky and unusual, and some are beautiful in ways you've never seen before. That's the main reason I find such joy in exploring them. But it's not that often you come across one that makes you say "this is totally unique". But Golden Sweet is exactly that.
The most obviously unusual thing about Golden Sweet is the colour of its pods, which do merit the "golden" tag. They start off a bright light yellow, just slightly on the pale side of lemon. I don't know of any other yellow podded varieties, although there probably are some. It's no modern novelty though. Golden Sweet or something incredibly like it was used by Gregor Mendel in his pea breeding experiments in the 1860s which led to the discovery of nature's laws of inheritance, even though it took another 40 years for anyone to realise the significance of it.
Gregor Mendel was not a professional scientist. He was a monk. He experimented with pea breeding for the fun of it. Unfortunately that meant that when he published his scientific paper explaining how some inherited traits are dominant and others recessive and they're all passed on by random independent assortment, nobody took a blind bit of notice ... including Charles Darwin, who was in the process of researching The Origin of Species and was busy writing to pea breeders trying to find out exactly the kind of information Mendel had already comprehensively discovered. Mendel, an intelligent amateur naturalist who had gone into the church so that he could get a university education, experimented by crossing a yellow-podded pea with a green-podded one in the monastery garden. The result was a consistent yellowy green in the next generation. But when he planted the following generation he found they all separated out into green types or yellow types again. From this he worked out that inheritance was not about the equal blending of substances from the parents (as had always been assumed). It was more a random assortment of little packets of information, each of which could be passed on in its entirety. He also noticed that the ratios among his plants were roughly three quarters green-podded and one quarter yellow-podded, which suggested to him that these packets must be arranged into pairs in which some packets were able to dominate while others hid themselves completely and then reappeared in subsequent generations. He was absolutely right, but his work was ignored and entirely forgotten until the early 1900s when better microscopes enabled scientists to actually see these packets, which we now call genes, and those responsible for the "breakthrough" were rather surprised to find that an Austrian abbot had beaten them to it.
So if you're looking for a heritage pea with historical provenance, Golden Sweet has some. Its age and origins are not known, but it is thought to have come from India. I suspect it is somewhat adapted from its Asian origins because it thrives very happily in soggy British gardens.
As a garden performer, Golden Sweet is superb. It reaches five or six feet tall so it needs to be grown with some support. It may not produce a good crop if it's planted very early or very late in the season (I found my late crop last year suffered from powdery mildew, though it was less badly affected than some other varieties). But it is very vigorous, fast-growing and voluptuous and its yields are abundant. It also doesn't seem to suffer from anything much in the way of pests and diseases. Apart from late-season mildew and the very occasional mid-season pea moth, Golden Sweet gave me some of the cleanest and healthiest pea plants I've ever grown.
The plants are attractive from quite an early age, because they have a bright magenta-pink splash in the leaf axils. This is something I associate with purple-podded peas, because all the purples I know of have it, and it's very uncommon in green-podded peas. The magenta splosh on Golden Sweet, however, is a wide double one and quite unlike other varieties. It's like there's two dark pink rings, sometimes with white rays through them ... and they are very very attractive. The foliage and tendrils are a fairly normal green while the plants are young but as the flower buds start to develop deep within the leaf buds, the tops of the plants start to go much more yellow. It's not an anaemic, washed out yellow ... it's a deep, intense lemon-green. Once flowering has got underway, stems and tendrils are intense bright yellow with an orangey-rose blush. Sound flamboyant? It is!
But that's nothing compared to the flower colours. I say colours in plural, because each flower goes through a whole sequence of dramatic colour changes, and as the plants are usually bearing flowers of different ages at the same time, all the different colours appear at once in a carnival-like display across the whole crop. They really have to be seen to be believed, and the only way I can begin to do justice to them is to direct you to my photogallery blog post about them. But the gist of it is this. They produce cream coloured buds (instead of the usual green) with pale cream petals emerging. While still quite small, the innermost petal within the bud goes deep pink, and glows through the outer creamy layer. The cream then turns to pink, then mauve, while the inner petal darkens to purple. Often this change happens in a gradual blend across the surface of the petal, which looks amazing. And finally, the mauve gives way to a soft sky blue while the purple inner one turns to deep midnight blue. These colour changes also occur in most purple podded peas, but not always with this level of intensity or colour blending. And of course the cream coloured sepals and rose-flushed bright yellow stems give the plant an even more exotic appearance. There is one hitch though. The flowers never open out fully the way peas normally do. They just become very large half-open buds. But they are beautiful enough for it not to matter. (And of course it doesn't affect pollination as peas don't require any help from bees.)
I found that some plants produced double pods, i.e. two flower buds at each node. But not all of them did this, and of those that did, a reversion to single nodes seemed to happen soon afterwards.
Golden Sweet is usually grown as a mangetout, or snow pea. If you harvest the pods while they're still young they are very sweet and crunchy, so you can eat them raw straight off the plants or put them in a salad (as their yellow colour is at its brightest when young, they are very aesthetically pleasing in salads). As the pods get bigger the colour fades to a pale greeny-yellow and a slightly more bitter taste develops. They are still pretty good for cooking at this stage but not so good raw. Larger pods also inevitably start to develop string. Once the peas start bulging out visibly, you're better off leaving them to develop into full size shelling peas.
This is certainly the best flavoured mangetout I've come across as long as you pick it while it's young. It's stringless and sweet. It's also ridiculously abundant ... the pods are borne in such profusion it's quite a job to keep picking them all. I only planted sixteen seeds and the crop provided as many pods and peas as I could eat for a month or so.
Shelled out and eaten raw the peas are quite sweet and tasty, about 7 or 8 peas per pod, and with plenty of substance to them. The peas are light green (by that stage the pods usually are too) and succulent with a rich old-fashioned flavour. It's a pleasure to eat them straight off the plant. When cooked they go an unusual colour: the skins are a pale grey green but on the inside they are a dark emerald green. It's the kind of colouring I associate with broad beans rather than peas and makes quite an attractive novelty on the dinner plate.
Pink and blue flowers on the same plant
But the delights of this unique variety are not over when you've finished eating them. Drying them down for next year's seed is a pleasure in itself so great it should induce anyone to start seed saving! They go through amazing colour changes as they dry out and finish up with gorgeous speckles and patterns, all different. The colours are at their most intense a few days after harvest, when the pale green of the pea's surface is finely sprayed with particles of deep blue, indigo, purple and rose pink. They look as though they've been splattered with ink from a fountain pen cartridge. The speckles are at their most sharply defined and intensely coloured when the pea is allowed to dry inside the pod, especially those parts which are in physical contact with the pod. Any parts of the pea which are exposed to air (even inside the pod) develop a softer and more blurry speckling. You get to see every pea within the pod developing its own unique pattern of coloured speckles while the peas themselves adopt various shades of green or tan. It's amazing and beautiful ... an aurora borealis on a single pea.
My verdict overall is that, barring a crop failure, I can't see how anyone could be disappointed with this variety ... it has a bit of everything. I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone. A pea like no other.