4 July 2014

Mange tout

Allotmenteers always bang on about how much better everything tastes when home-grown. To be honest, this isn't always the case - I've eaten a fair few stringy beans and woody radishes in my veg-growing career. If there is one vegetable which absolutely does taste better when home-grown, it is peas (including mange tout). Home-grown mange tout always taste better than their shop-bought equivalents. Peas have a relatively high sugar content, but once picked the sugars deteriorate and become starch. This is why frozen peas often taste better than shop bought fresh ones, as the sugars are preserved by the freezing process, and why producers of frozen peas work so hard to minimise the time between picking and freezing. Botanically there is no difference between peas and mange tout - mange tout are simply a cultivar where the whole pod can be eaten.

I first grew mange tout (also known as sugar snap peas) last year, and was really taken with them. Unlike many legumes (but like broad beans) the young plants have a degree of frost-hardiness. In Southern England, they can be sown directly into the ground in early April, or even earlier under a cloche. This means they get ahead of the slugs, which reek havoc in my garden with anything sown from May onwards. Mange tout also do well in a large pot, and can be grown on a patio or balcony. Sow the peas about 4 inches apart in a double row. Peas like a lot of support, so grow them up twiggy sticks, netting or a combination of bamboo canes and string.

From an early April sowing, you should be able to harvest the first mange tout in about mid to late June. One of the great things about this is that the mange tout arrive before the main harvest season of July and August, when maincrop legumes such as runner beans and French beans are ready. Many books suggest planting peas successively every four weeks or so to ensure a continual harvest. Personally, I've found that a mid-spring sowing will continue to produce mange tout into autumn, albeit that the plants do slow up a bit.

Home-grown mange tout are best cooked simply, in order to appreciate their superior taste. To prepare, simply trim both ends and, if necessary, remove any string along the more rounded side. Mange tout can be steamed, or cooked in boiling water, for about two minutes until al dente. I serve them with a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of sea salt.

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