As he guided his giant harvester through a field in the east of England, James Williams had nine hours to go before he finished his 12-hour shift. Even then, other workers continued through the night picking a once ubiquitous vegetable that growers say could be on the verge of a new moment in British life.
The frozen pea, a humble staple of the country’s cuisine, may be on its way back.
At least that’s what Britain’s vegetable growers are aiming for, as food prices rise and shoppers increasingly turn to supermarket freezers to help cut weekly costs.
Producers say it provides another opportunity for pea growers to restore popularity to a product that was a 1970s staple but fell into disuse as shoppers sought farm-to-table produce. such as broccoli, peppers, avocados and others. , more exotic, vegetables.
“Consumers are now turning to frozen food, in the cost of living crisis, because frozen produce is profitable,” said Holly Jones, crop association director for the British Growers Association, an umbrella group for the fresh produce industry, referring to the pressure on living standards that resonates across multiple industries, but no more so than food.
She acknowledged that there is a certain stigma around frozen foods, which are often associated with calorie-dense processed products, and that some Britons overlook frozen vegetables like protein-rich peas.
“You can eat healthy in the frozen food aisle, it’s possible,” Ms Jones said. “There is a lot of potential with the big British pea.”
In the 12 months to July 2023, Britons spent more than 150 million pounds, or around $191 million, on frozen peas in supermarkets, according to the British Frozen Foods Federation, a trade association, citing figures from Kantar , a leading data research organization. This is an increase of more than 10% in terms of cash compared to the previous year to July, although the volume sold was mostly stable and even fell slightly to around 107,000 tons. .
Although below the recent peak of the pandemic, it is still a significant amount, and growers believe more Britons may be tempted to give frozen vegetables a second look as prices continue to rise . Overall food prices jumped more than 18.4% in May.
Internet searches for frozen peas, including recipes, have increased 20% in one year, according to an industry campaign group called – perhaps inevitably – Yes Peas.
Some TV chefs have come up with new cooking ideas, including pea pesto and pea mash or smash, perhaps prompted by the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets.
And last month the industry promoted the nutritional and other benefits of the product in what it called Great British Pea Week, an annual event that coincides with the start of the harvest, which runs until the mid August.
Pervasive in the 1970s, the image of the pea went out of fashion in the 1990s when then British Prime Minister John Major was portrayed in a satirical television show, “Spitting Image”, as a gray figure with a exceptionally boring conversation with his wife. by eating peas.
But Stephen Francis, managing director of Fen Peas, a co-operative which operates 5,500 acres of land on 82 farms in Lincolnshire, traces the fall of the pea from grace to the early years of this century. It was, he said, that one restaurant chain, Harvester, considered not offering peas because diners were leaving them uneaten on their plates. (Mr. Francis said the problem was quickly solved with slightly more expensive and better quality peas.)
The recovery began, he said, with the pandemic, which closed restaurants and hospitality venues and prompted Britons to cook more at home, at a time when some imported vegetables were not available. available. Now Britain’s tough economic times are making frozen peas particularly attractive, he added.
“People are like, ‘I probably don’t miss my avocado that much, my peas are really good value and there’s no waste,'” Mr Francis said. “You pour in what you want, there’s no prep, they’re ready in five minutes and off you go.”
In perhaps a sign of recovery, Mr Francis has increased his sales by at least a tenth in recent years and said he could sell even more. Its customers could settle for 10% more tonnage than it will supply this year.
And, after spending more than four decades in the business, Mr. Francis, 61, has achieved another success: he has won a long and ultimately victorious battle to get a pea emoji on cellphones.
“They’re all saying I’ve gone absolutely crazy,” he laughed.
In Lincolnshire, one of Britain’s most fertile farming regions, where the aroma of freshly cut peas fills the air, Mr Williams pilots a 25-ton harvester known as a pea viner. Moving at less than a mile an hour, it cuts a crop that grows just 18 inches from the ground, funneling the vegetables into internal machinery that separates the peas from the pods.
After about 25 minutes, a lorry drove by and, with the flick of a switch, Mr Williams unloaded two tonnes of brilliant green peas.
“Physically it’s not difficult — but mentally it’s difficult; you have to constantly concentrate,” he said, “if you go too fast with a high-volume harvest, you can block everything, it’s very easy to get clogged.
At Greenyard Frozen UK, a company that freezes peas sold in many supermarkets, Andy Dexter, process manager at the company’s Boston plant, said peas have always been widely consumed, but only because they’re “the norm, they’re kind of taken for granted.”
Now, he said, “the cost is driving demand because it’s cheaper and has a good shelf life.”
Upon arrival at the Greenyard factory, the peas are checked for tenderness in a machine called an tenderometer and are then washed several times in machines that separate any remaining pods, split peas, stones or other detritus to remove them.
Finally, a sea of peas flows down the vibrating treadmill. They will first be heated to 70 degrees, then briefly blanched at 90 degrees before being quickly frozen.
Pea professionals like to call freezing “nature’s pause button” and the faster the harvest goes through the freezer, the sweeter the vegetable tends to be (premium vegetables will make that trip in 150 minutes or less).
Mr Dexter, 57, said that even after 39 years of working with them, he never gets bored of the peas.
“I always get the same buzz every year,” he said, “I know I sound sad, but it’s always good to see the first peas in and the last ones out.”