Sunday 6 January 2008
Heritage vegetable review
Pea: Carruthers' Purple Podded
Age: unknown. Saved as a family heirloom.
Background: From Co. Down, Northern Ireland
My supplier: Heritage Seed Library
Pros: fantastic flavour, beautiful flowers, beautiful pods, high yields, very vigorous
Cons: the pea moth's favourite
According to the Heritage Seed Library catalogue, this is an heirloom pea from County Down, donated to them by Patrick Carruthers who got it from an old family gardener about 25 years previously, and has grown it ever since. They also mention the beautiful flowers.
Tall and vigorous (it grows to about 6ft), Carruthers' Purple Podded has a slightly olive green shade to its leaves and produces a splash of bright magenta in each leaf axil, and to a lesser extent on the backs of the leaves. So it looks quite decorative even before it flowers.
It was the earliest flowering of all my heritage peas in 2007. After the cream and pink buds it has dainty lantern-like flowers borne singly on very long curved stems. Very pretty. The flowers are large with a distinctive hooked shape in the calyx and a long elegant red-flushed spur at the back, very like an Art Nouveau lantern. They also have a decorative swirly red pattern on the front of the calyx, which is something to distinguish Carruthers' from most other purple podded varieties (I've only ever seen this on the Irish varieties). The top petal is pink maturing to mauve, with patterns of fine darker streaks, and a glowing maroon wing petal underneath. As they die off they turn blue. All the purple peas have these lovely changeable bi-colour flowers, but this is one I found myself standing around and staring at. A lot.
Seriously, the flowers are as good as an old-fashioned sweet pea (albeit not scented) and with its enormously long curvy stems I think this one would appeal to flower arrangers as well as vegetable gardeners.
The pods are a reasonable size with a lovely deep violet-purple colour. They glow translucently in the sun, taking on a dusky dark purple in lower light. Eaten raw at the young stage they are very juicy and crunchy (and the purple colour goes right the way through them) but have a slight bitterness.
Beautiful at all stages, the pods mature to a deep violet purple slightly masked by a greyish bloom on the surface. This rubs off very readily to show the pod's true colour ... if you so much as touch a pod you will leave behind dark fingerprints. The surface goes quite leathery at maturity. Although the pod itself is purple right through, it has a fibrous layer of bright green on the inside. This creates a beautiful effect when you hold an empty pod up to the light ... as intense and vibrant as a stained glass window, but with the colours swirled and blurred like watercolours.
The peas inside are an olive green colour, large and very tightly packed, approximately eight to a pod. They go slightly square and chunky as they press against each other in the pod.
The fresh peas taste surprisingly sweet for a purple ... the best I've tasted. The flavour is mild, but it's the sweetness that dominates. They have a slightly coarser texture than a modern green pea but that's actually rather nice ... and there's none of the earthiness or bitter aftertaste you so often get with purples. This is truly a superior variety and deserves to be much more widely grown.
Mr Carruthers who donated the pea to the Heritage Seed Library says they can be frozen straight from the pod without the need for blanching. I haven't tried this ... they taste so damn gorgeous straight off the plant they don't get anywhere near the freezer.
Yields are very generous and the plants produce masses of pods.
You may have to be vigilant if you want to save this one for seed, because I found it to be more susceptible than most to pea moth. The pods look so beautiful, the last thing you want is to pop them open and find two or three little maggoty chaps gazing back at you. The tell-tale sign of an unhatched pea moth in residence is a brownish sunken patch on the surface of the pea. If the surface has a small round hole or a sideways tunnel chewed out of it then the larva has pupated and will be wriggling around the inside of the pod somewhere. It's a small green-white grub with a dark head. Dispose of it as you will, because it will probably chomp lumps out of some more peas if it's left on the loose.
I should point out though that this review is based on a single growing season, so I can't be sure what caused this crop to attract more than its fair share of pea moths ... it may just have been unlucky or planted in the wrong place.
Even when the plants have completed their life cycle and started to die off, their beauty takes on a new phase. The leaves fade to a golden yellow flushed with rose, and the magenta in the leaf axils and stems becomes very deep and intense. The overall effect is very striking as the green gives way to all these other shades, and makes a beautiful contrast with the pods.
Autumnal colours as the plants reach the end of their season.
While I haven't finished trialling all my purple podded peas yet, so far this one easily stands out as the top choice for flavour. It's probably top choice for looks too, and possibly also for yield.
To my knowledge the Heritage Seed Library is the only source for Carruthers' Purple Podded, and as far as I'm concerned it's worth joining the HSL just for this variety alone, though unfortunately it isn't listed in the 2008 catalogue. I can probably give out a few packets of mine for others to try if anyone's interested, but they'll have to be small amounts.