The sky feels heavy, the daylight lamp’s on and I’ve got a hot water bottle on my lap to keep warm at my desk. I’ve already drunk my daily coffee quota ( I’m trying to switch to green tea but it’s just not happening) and I’m meant to be sorting my accounts. These are the days that I suddenly find a mound of washing to do, decide to clip the guinea pig’s nails or, once I’m finally at the computer, do a bit of “surfing”. Some masochistic streak always seems to pull me towards a blog called Manger. Envy isn’t a pretty thing to admit to, but hell, it’s unavoidable. The writer, the super-modelesque Mimi Thorenssen (oh yes, she has an unbelievably exotic name too), gazes out of the glorious pictures taken by her uber-talented photographer husband. There are teams of dreamy children, hounds to die for (I so want a dog) and the most incredible images of the rural Médoc. Even the recipes are inspiring, fabulous, and really work too. Take a peek. You’ll no doubt feel an urgent need to trade in your Tupperware for Terracotta and your M&S for Missoni, but there’s no denying it, Manger is a work of art.
But now’s the moment to get a grip. The huge basket of Seville oranges are waiting to fill the house with their fabulous wintery scent when I put on the marmalade later today. The hellebore buds in the garden are just days off bursting into flower. I’m beginning to reminisce about our fabulous visit to Lacock in the sunshine last week and all of a sudden there seems plenty to get excited about. Right now I’m determined to celebrate all things British and where better to start than The National Trust and a bowlful of Black Badger Peas?
I’m ashamed to admit that a National Trust Membership did seem a rather middle-aged birthday present (I’m in denial), from my sister last year but I’m loving it. The West Country is just packed with magical buildings and parks to visit, so last weekend with a clear blue sky calling we leapt into the car, proudly bearing our badge, and whistled off to Lacock Abbey (I’ve not got as far as packing the thermos and sandwiches yet, but just give me time). There’s no need for the tour guide bit now, you can find all that on the Lacock link. I’ll just say that it’s right up there with spots that I’ve traversed oceans and trekked up mountains to experience. The tythe barn, the abbey cloisters, early snowdrops and ploughman’s lunch in the pub. It’s a great reminder to celebrate what you’ve got in your own back yard.
And now to some other rather unlikely British stars – Black Badger Peas; you’ve probably never heard of them, I hadn’t until a few months ago. The fascinating thing is that we’ve been growing them in this country, along with fava beans, for hundreds of years. I came across the Black Badgers via Hodmedods, growers and purveyors of Great British peas and beans, whilst I was researching my book. Hodmedods, who are based in Norfolk, are doing a fabulous job of re-igniting our national appetite for beans. It’s easy to forget how big a role legumes have played in our national diet (think “pease pudding cold, pease pudding hot…….”). It seems bonkers that most of us are unaware that we’ve been exporting tons, around 500, 000 tons a year I’m told, of beans to The Middle East for decades. At last we can eat British Baked Beans (yes, they even sell them by the can) along with local favas, marrowfat peas and the evocatively named Black Badger pea. Black Badgers are also known as Carlin or Maple peas in the North of England or somewhat less glamourously as Grey Peas in the Black Country (try the accent and they sound even more appetising!)
I cooked up the Badgers on a particularly dismal day last week. I’d soaked them overnight and then cooked them for about 4o minutes (remarkably quick compared to most dried peas in my experience). After a bit of an Old Mother Hubbard moment I reverted to my default way with legumes. It’s great to have a recipe up your sleeve that doesn’t usually require a trip to the shops. So here you have a simple adaptation of the Syrian lentils from my book Pulse.
Syrian-style Black Badgers
2-3 brown onions, sliced finely
4 tbsp olive oil
400 g cooked black badger peas ( cooked fava beans, cooked brown lentils would also work well)
1-2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and then ground
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 pinch of chilli flakes or better still 2 tsp of sweet Aleppo pepper flakes
1 small bunch fresh coriander, parsley or a few mint leaves, roughly chopped
juice of 1/2 – 1 lemon
Begin by frying the onion in the olive oil in a large saucepan, you could use a frying pan and then transfer them but I prefer to keep this as a one pot dish. Keep the temperature fairly low and allow the onions to soften, sweeten and turn gold, this may take about 20 minutes. Be patient.
Set aside half of the onions from the pan, turn up the heat and throw in the garlic, cumin and chilli. Stir and, as soon as you can really smell the garlic, add the peas and a couple of ladles of their cooking water.
Simmer for about 10 minutes, enough for the flavours to marry, stirring from time to time.
Have a taste and season with salt, pepper and enough lemon juice to really zip everything up. Add the rest of the onions and plenty of herbs. I used mint as we had some rather moth-eaten leaves left in the garden (come on spring I need some fresh herbs) but coriander or parsley are fab’ too.
We ate our Badgers with sourdough and a squeeze of blood orange juice but they would be equally good with toasted pitta or lavash and a dollop of creamy Greek yoghurt.
Peter has eaten ALOT of pulses over the years, as I experimented and tested my way through recipes, and he pronounced the Black Badger “one of his top three”(other winners to be revealed in later posts). I do agree that the entire dish was comforting and suprisingly nutty, without feeling too worthy or wholesome. Just give the Grey Pea a chance, it might not look much but it’s deeply satisfying.