Like most back garden-vegetable growers, I can’t resist the lure of the unusual.
We’ve all heard innumerable times about the quest of the evil supermarkets to stamp out choice and offer us only the same few varieties of veg (those that store well and grow uniformly) whereas we (the elite! The vanguard! Those sticking it to the man!) with our allotments, our vegetable gardens, our peas growing in pots on a balcony, well, we have the option of growing every variety on offer in nature. Which is a pretty huge choice.
Not for us your orange carrots in plastic wrappers. Oh no! I’ll have a purple haze carrot, please, freshly pulled this morning.
Your prosaic beetroot is purple, pickled and in a glass jar? Ha! Mine is striped white and pink and still has a little bit of soil on that I just can’t shift…
And don’t even talk to me about your imported, rock-hard, bland supermarket tomatoes. Tomatoes! I don’t even know if those tasteless things deserve the name. Mine are heirloom and eaten as soon as I pull them off the stem.
Now, I say all this with my tongue firmly in cheek, but it is of course also true. The reality of veg growing is that you’re going to spend ages – months in fact – lovingly tending a seed to a seedling, planting it out into the soil, watering it every flipping day in this insanely hot weather, fighting the good fight to prevent it being completely devoured by slugs and finally, hopefully, getting a small crop from it, which is probably enough for a meal or two. Well, you don’t want to go through all that just to get a bog standard crappy variety of carrot that you could have picked up from your corner shop…
So, my desire for the unusual meant that I found a marketing email from Suttons seeds completely irresistible earlier this year. The email offered me the chance to buy some seeds from a wonderful veg I’d never even heard of before. A vegetable called the asparagus pea.
I love peas. I love asparagus. You’ve pretty much got me sold by the name alone.
As if the seed description had been written entirely to appeal to me, after saying the veg tastes like a cross between peas and asparagus, it went on to say that it is popular throughout Southeast Asia, a particular favourite spot of the world for me (though I have to mention that in the two years I spent living / travelling there, I don’t think I ever came across one of these little beauties…)
And the joy of growing this amazing sweet, delicious-sounding vegetable that I couldn’t buy in any shop was the cherry on top of the cake.
So a packet was ordered and I cared for the little seeds lovingly.
I photographed the progress of my plantlings, already certain of success and the amazing blog article I would write, outlining my new discovery and the wonders of this magical plant.
The flowers are undeniably attractive, starting a dark, dark red:
And then turning a bit lighter when they’re fully in bloom:
And after the flower, they produce some wonderfully frilly and odd-looking “peas.”
But it was at this point that the story of the asparagus pea becomes a sad one. My first sign that all was not quite as I had imagined came when I went to check how I would know they are ready to pick. The seed packet told me I should harvest them while they are still less than 3cm (or 1 inch).
This seemed so ridiculously small that I thought it must be a misprint. I checked online. I found hundreds of florid descriptions of this wonderful vegetable, all ecstatic about its delicate taste and all saying that yes, indeed, it needed to be picked when they were less than 3cm long “otherwise they will taste too stringy.”
Hmmm. At a quick count, I am growing nine plants. Each of which has produced four or five peas. So, a total of 45 peas, tops. Peas that are less than 3cm long. I think if you ate the whole lot as a side with one meal that would probably be a reasonable amount to eat. For one meal only.
Still, not to worry, not to worry, for this one meal will clearly be a spectacular delicacy.
I picked the first five when they were ready and – following instructions from the internet – put them into a plastic bag in the fridge to wait for some more to be ready. Vigilantly, I checked the little asparagus peas every day. After a few days, a few more were ready. I picked them and went to add them to my bag…
…but the asparagus peas in the bag had wilted away to nothing.
Right, I thought to myself, time to eat these eight asparagus peas and see how wonderful they taste.
As the seed packet had instructed, I lightly boiled them, adding nothing else in order not to risk spoiling their delicate flavour (again, the pedant in me would point out that Southeast Asian cuisine is not world renowned for lightly boiling things and not adding flavour, but hey ho…)
Now, if only I had seen this article (and comments) on the cottage smallholder’s blog in advance, I would have been prepared for what awaited me.
The vegetable tasted neither of asparagus nor pea. Neither my partner nor I could put our finger exactly on what it did taste like.
He said, “It’s not quite as bad as unpleasant but it’s certainly not nice…”
Cardboard seems a little harsh, but there certainly wasn’t a distinctive flavour I could recognise. Perhaps the hard outside of a bean that’s grown very large would be the closest I could venture. Fibrous and green, but not, exactly, tasty.
So the lauded, beautiful and unusual asparagus pea spectacularly failed to live up to expectations. Often the way, isn’t it? Poor asparagus pea.
Ever the optimist, I’ve now taken to a daily examination of the cucamelons instead…*
*Not a euphemism