James Lowe’s 127-Mile Quest into the Malvern Hills for Perfect Peas
To source the best peas for Lyle’s’ famous pea and ticklemore salad, we joined the Michelin-starred chef on a trip to a Worcestershire farm, where he hand-picks the best pods.
James Lowe has a thing about peas.
That's right, peas. The green ones. Not the wet yellow ones that frustrated boarding school graduates pay escorts to deliver as part of a sexual humiliation. We're talking about the ones in pods.
To try and satiate the Lyle's head chef's quest for the perfect pea—that sweet bursting green orb that seems so everyday but actually proves so elusive—I find myself climbing into a car, at 9 AM, among the pigeons and polystyrene of Shoreditch, to drive 127 miles to a vegetable farm somewhere below the Malvern Hills. I'm sitting in the back, beside Freddie Janssen.
"A real family day out," I laugh, folding my legs up like a bus ticket.
The peas are, unsurprisingly, intrinsic to Lowe's pea and ticklemore salad—a starter of fresh peas, shaved white ticklemore cheese, and pea flowers that is as simple and as heady as an English country garden. We see plenty of gardens, in fact, as we drive through the green fields and lurking red "Leave" posters tied to farm gates of the West Midlands.
Until finally, after nearly three hours in the car, we pull up outside the red brick offices of Red Star Growers, an enterprise about as far from the Soviet image summoned up by the name as you can imagine. A man, Malcolm, comes to meet us wearing a high-vis jacket, short-sleeved shirt, and heavy mud-clod boots, just as Lowe is bending into a particularly urban-looking yoga stretch out in the car park.
This farm, a rolling 1,200 acres of scattered fields, with the blue points of the Malvern Hills rising up on the horizon, is fairly typical of British vegetable growers—harnessed to the whims of the supermarkets, pulling up baby veg to vacuum-pack into polystyrene trays, throwing away as much as they keep because it doesn't reach the specific aesthetics of Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's, and the rest. Most of the pickers come from Eastern Europe, spending the summer living in plastic static caravans, their working day spent either bent over in a field cutting and tying together bunches of spring onions and carrots, or in one of the huge, freezing, windowless warehouses where vegetables are washed, packed, and stored.
As we bounce along a particularly steep track along the edge of one of the fields, overlooked by a house with a trampoline and washing line in the garden, I ask Lowe what it is with peas. Why is the man who trained in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and La Trompette, who was the former head chef of Fergus Henderson's St. John Bread & Wine, who co-founded The Young Turks chef collective, now scouring the country for something as prosaic as a pea?
"I grew up with frozen peas, because that's what you do," he replies, as I'm thrown around the backseat of the minibus like a ping pong ball in a tombola. "Then you go into a fancy kitchen and they want to use frozen peas because they're sweet and they're consistent. The argument for frozen is actually very good because they're picked very fast, they're picked when they're sweet and young, they're frozen within 45 minutes—all the sugars are still there."
So far, so unremarkable, I think, my fist digging into the grey polyester of my seat as we lurch over an old set of tracks.
"They'll also tell you in fancy restaurants that frozen peas make better puree and better soup. And you believe it," continues Lowe. "Then, if you do order some fresh peas, sure enough, they've been out of the ground for four days, the pods are all chewed up and old, the peas are starchy, and you go, 'Oh yeah, frozen peas are better.' So unless you go and pick them one day yourself—or get an actually fresh delivery—you never know."
So when did you have this pea revelation then? I ask, my pen poised, feeling like a vegetable-oriented therapist on the world's most unlikely couch.
Lowe laughs: "I remember having lunch at Tom Aitkens' when I was working at The Fat Duck. There was this pea and ham dish that I had as a starter and I remember thinking, 'Holy shit, this is incredible.' It was in a very over-the-top Tom Aitkens-style, so it had five textures of whatever, on this massive plate with smears and stuff. But what really got me were the peas on the plate. They were unreal."
Interesting. I hum, trying not to sound like something from a Woody Allen film.
"They were in the pod, on the plate. I'd never scooped a pea out like that before. I'm always slightly embarrassed to say that the first time I had a pea was three years after I started cooking," Lowe adds. "But I think that's also a bit of a statement about how people eat food. We had a pretty ordinary food experience growing up, but I'd just never seen this." He gestures out the window at the lines of green leaves descending into the distance.
Moments later, we are standing on the top of a hill, surrounded by the thin twists of pea plant, their spindles hung with big green pods like pencil cases, cracking open the skin and popping the vegetables straight into our mouths.
"People just don't know what this tastes like," says Lowe, holding up his pod like an Olympian. "We don't want anything ridiculous—we just want to go to the effort of getting better ingredients in the first place, so we don't have to waste hours in the kitchen grading peas over a bowl. My time is better spent finding out who's growing better peas in the first place. I'd even be willing to pay to have them couriered up to the restaurant, if I could find the right grower."
How are these peas, asks Malcolm, standing with his feet a good metre apart, his hands dug deep in his pockets?
"They're good, but I am bloody hungry," smiles Lowe, turning back to the minibus.
As well as the fresh peas and pea flowers, Lowe also uses the pea pods to make the salad's vinaigrette. You can just blend them up, he says, or do it with a cold press if you want to be trendy.
"St. John used to do this thing in the summer, when the peas first come, where they'd do a bowl of peas in a pod," Lowe explains, thumbing pea after pea behind his teeth. "It's one of those oft-copied things that you see people doing but the peas have to be really good—otherwise you're just cooking from photos."
The peas here are all picked by hand—all the vegetables on the farm are picked by hand, from carrots to beans to tender stem broccoli. In fact, says Malcolm, the most expensive part of the process is picking. So, if they can't get the right price, they'll simply leave the vegetables in the ground to rot. It costs more to pick them than they can make up in the selling. Likewise, if the carrot is too thin, too small, too wonky, it will get simply thrown in the bin. If we're not willing to buy them, they they can't afford to sell them.
I hear the logic and can't criticise the thinking but, a few hours later, as Janssen and I stare at box after box of perfectly edible, slender, twisted carrots that are destined for the bin, it breaks my heart and rises through my bones like fury. What a waste. What a terrible waste we've created.
And so, of course, we start stuffing these rejected carrots into our pockets, bags and hands, to take back to London. Well, who wouldn't?
That evening, riding back into London on a swaying Northern Line train from Hendon, a box of carrots, baby courgettes, and beetroot at our feet, I ask Lowe why he bothers—why he's still trying to find that perfect supply? Why he needs that seed pod hit? What it is about peas and ticklemore that has kept it on his menus for all these years?
"That dish means hours and hours of prep, but it is one of my favourite dishes", he answers, smiling down at me as we roll through the suburban streets of far North London.
I nod. He shrugs. And then adds: "I'm just particularly finicky about peas."