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Pea (pisum sativum)
A climbing plant of the Leguminosae family, with pods and edible seeds. The sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is grown for its edible flowers.
They are a popular summer vegetable and also make a nutritious addition to salads, soups and casseroles. Varieties have been bred to produce small seeds (peas) and tender pods, and these can be eaten in their entirety - when they generally take on the French name 'Mange Tout' or the American 'Snow Pea'. 'Sugar Snap' peas are another hybrid - these developing full sized seeds, but still eaten as a complete pod (having been headed and tailed.
In medieval Britain they were gathered wild, and one account described how the peasants of England survived a famine in 1555:
"Pease, which by their great increase did good to the poore, without doubt grew for many years before but were not observed till hunger made them take notice of them and quickened their, which commonly in our people is very dull".
Culivated peas were still a novelty at the end of the 17th century. W.H. Lewis, in "The Splendid Century" quotes Madame de Maintenon writing from Marly in 1696 that "impatience to eat (peas), the pleasure of having eaten them, and the anticipation of eating them again are the three subjects I have heard very thoroughly dealt with . . . Some women, having supped, and supped well at the King"s [Louis X1V) tale, having peas waiting for them in their rooms to eat before going to bed".
Peas probably weren"t cultivated in Britain until the reign of Henry V111 - so after 1509, and before that would have been gathered wild.
Peas are one of the most digestible and non-gassy legumes; they contain 78 per cent water, and only traces of fat, but provide a good source of iron and vitamins A, C, B1, B2 and niacin.