I fell in love with purple peas two years ago at Monticello, where the pea was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. He had his slaves plant every variety he could get his hands on.
I didn’t taste the purple peas; I only saw them growing in Monticello’s restored garden. With their lovely pink-and-violet blossoms and deep-purple pods, they were the Blue-Podded Capucijner, said to have been grown by Franciscan Capuchin monks as early as the sixteenth century and now for sale in the Monticello gift shop. The Capucijner is recommended for drying for soup, but it is sometimes picked young and eaten as an edible-podded snow pea. I didn’t know that at the time, or care. I just loved the plant for its looks.
In Monticello’s shop I reluctantly bypassed the Capucijner seeds, because in my little garden I can spare only four feet of row for peas, and I usually devote all of that space to Cascadia snap peas. But after Slow Food USA paired seeds from the Ark of Taste with new varieties from the young company Row 7 in Slow Food’s Plant a Seed Campaign last year, a packet of Beauregarde snow pea seeds was passed around the table at a Slow Food Corvallis board meeting. With one look at the watercolor image of purple pods on the packet, I dropped the packet in my bag.
Last February I planted some Beauregarde seeds alongside my Cascadias, and soon I was rewarded with pink-and-purple blooms like the ones I’d seen at Monticello. Deep-purple pods followed, bending as the peas inside began to swell. I had to search for the packet to remind me what sort of peas I was growing. At this point, some of the peas—green in their purple pods—were nearly big enough for eating shelled. But Beauregarde was supposed to be a snow pea. So I started picking.
Beauregarde was bred by Michael Mazourek, an associate professor at Cornell, where he breeds vegetables to resist insects and diseases on Northeastern farms. Row 7 Seeds is his collaborative venture with Dan Barber, chef and restaurant co-owner at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, also in New York, and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb. The men’s shared goal is to breed vegetables for taste as well as suitability for organic farming, to produce the seeds organically, and to sell them widely. On the Row 7 website, they list all their collaborators, chefs around the United States who test the vegetables in their kitchens and farmers across the country who produce the seeds.
Michael Mazourek named Beauregarde for Violet Beauregarde, a character in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As you may remember, rude, arrogant Violet chews an experimental gum that makes her swell up and turn blue, like a giant blueberry. The Oompa-Loompa factory workers squeeze the juice out of her, but the indigo color remains. And that’s what most special about the Beauregarde pea pods: However you cook them, the deep-purple color remains.
The purple color comes, of course, from anthocyanins, which may or may not enhance human health by fighting infections, inflammation, cancer, and diabetes, by preventing dementia, and by improving vision. Unfortunately, none of these benefits has been proven. What we know anthocyanins do is improve plants’ defenses–against disease, drought, predation, and other stresses. Perhaps because of anthocyanins, Beauregarde resists fusarium wilt, although the plant is susceptible to powdery mildew late in the season.
Humans appreciate anthocyanin pigments for their appearance, in the garden and on the plate, and for the extra, vaguely spicy flavor they lend to, say, Black Krim tomatoes or Purple Haze carrots. But there is one annoying thing about most red and purple vegetables: Their pigments tend to leak out. I’ve written about this effect in pickled Swiss chard stems, and I’ve experienced it also with purple peppers. Michael Mazourek knows the trick of keeping the purple in the peas.
I didn’t research Beauregarde peas before cooking them, so their color retention amazed me. Cooking the peas brought other surprises as well. First, they are not sweet. My snap peas are sweet enough to eat as dessert. Shelled peas are sweet, too, if picked at the right stage. Green snow pea pods develop sweetness as the peas develop, although as they reach maturity the sugar turns to starch. Row 7 advises letting Beauregarde pods swell until the peas are halfway to shelling size. This is what I do when I grow green snow peas, but I must disagree with this recommendation for Beauregardes. Swollen Beauregarde pods look deformed, they are tough, and they need stringing. And their flavor is not improved over the flat pods.
The second big surprise, for me, was the long cooking Beauregarde peas seem to require. I haven’t timed the cooking exactly, but at least ten minutes are needed to render even flat Beauregarde pods tolerably tender.
The third surprise was that Beauregarde peas taste bland. Their anthocyanins don’t seem to give them that extra je ne sais quoi. I can best describe their flavor as neutral vegetable.
But still these pea pods can be delicious. I love them sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and then braised with a little water liquid until they are tender. The tender but chewy texture, the taste of garlic throughout, and the prodigious purpleness combine to make me devour a dishful of Beauregardes, and reach for more.