The pea's origin is unknown, but findings show that they have been grown by the Greeks and Romans since ancient times; later they were eaten in India, and from there they travelled to China. But they truly moved onwards and upwards when they made their way into sophisticated French cuisine in the 18th and 19th centuries, when more flavorful varieties were used.
Peas findings date back around 10,000 years in the Near East. There's evidence that they were grown in that area since approximately 7800 BC. It is an extremely ancient plant, and its seeds have been found in excavations in Neolithic sites and in many others from the Bronze Age.
Part of man's diet since the 16th century
Interestingly, peas were originally used as fodder for cattle. However, with the arrival of the 16th century, they were incorporated into man's diet, where they have remained ever since. The pea appeared in the Spanish language around that time, and was previously known as ervilia and arveja, and erveja in Hispanic American Spanish, names which are still remembered in certain circles.
Today we consider peas to be delicate leguminous plants, typical in spring and one of the most prized elements in Spanish gastronomy. Peas contain a wealth of minerals, fiber and sugars. Excellent examples include the lágrima pea, typical of the Basque Country, and more specifically of Getaria; and the Llavaneres pea, from Catalonia and Galicia, which is the most select variety and among the most highly valued of those grown in Spain. Lágrima peas have become a favorite ingredient of many of Spain's most brilliant chefs.
The plants are generally sown in late fall or early winter and the pea (pisum sativum) harvest begins in March and extends through early summer. The best peas stand out for their crunchy texture and subtle earthy flavor. Some are so delicate that they're not considered a vegetable but, rather, a seasonal fruit, and are used to make syrups and desserts.
Peas are unlike any other leguminous plant in terms of aroma and flavor. And, according to Néstor Luján, they freeze well. Each pod can contain between four and ten peas, and they must always be shelled very carefully.
In the hands of top chefs
Some of Spain's greatest chefs have restored fame to this delicate seasonal product, which requires minimal handling to preserve its essences and whose outstanding qualities are most notable when they are collected during the first harvest. These include Basque chefs, such as Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana (Akelarre) and Josean Martínez Alija; Catalonia's Carme Ruscalleda; Navarran names like José Miguel Sola (La Manduca de Azagra, in Madrid), and Ricardo Gil (La Huerta de Tudela, in Madrid).
ARZAK. Alto de Miracruz. Tel. 943 278 464. San Sebastian
AKELARRE. Barrio Igueldo. Tel. 943 311 209. San Sebastian
NERUA. Museo Guggenheim. Tel. 944 000 430. Bilbao
CAME RUSCALLEDA SANT PAU.Nou, 10. Tel. 937 600 662 Sant Pol de Mar (Barcelona)
LA MANDUCA DE AZAGRA. Sagasta 14. Tel. 915 910 112. Madrid
TREINTAITRES. Pablo Sarasate, 7. Tel. 948 827 606. Tudela (Navarre)