UK-grown Marrowfat peas are considered amongst the best in the world. They are only produced in the UK, Canada and New Zealand … with our maritime climate giving UK growers the edge.
Widely used in the snacks industry - particularly in Asia - the best quality samples receive a premium price for the export market. As snack peas become more popular in the UK, once processed, many are then finding their way back to our retail shelves and bars in handy snack packs!
Recently a Japanese client asked one of the exporters an apparently simple question, which proved rather tricky to answer: “Did the Marrowfat Pea originate from the UK or were the seeds originally imported from another country to be grown in the UK?”
The fact that an export cultivar popular in Japan is called Maro has led some people to assume, mistakenly, that the English name marrowfat is derived from Japanese. In fact the name marrowfat pea for mature dried peas is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1733.
Tracking down the true origin of Marrowfat peas proved more involved - detective work has revealed that the birth of marrowfat peas as we know them dates back to the late 1800s.
During the life of Queen Victoria there were many progressive changes. For example, the Victorians became very interested in plant breeding - including peas. Amateurs were producing new crosses, and from the 1820s ‘marrow’ peas were being referred to. Descriptions of the many types of pea from the 19th century were based not on taxonomy, but on artificial similarities, the basis for many of the names of common heirloom peas still grown today.
From the late 19th century the trail leads to the Netherlands. In 1898, an article for the Royal Horticultural Journal on the history of garden peas in England: He said that “… in the last fifteen years a whole new business had been created in Holland of growing and marketing ‘blue boiling peas’ (soaked peas).’”
These were exported as a dried pea to England and sold in major industrial and mining towns. They were used as a cooked winter vegetable as a good replacement for fresh peas. They were also sold with butter and salt from stalls to workmen in the early morning hours.
It was assumed that the peas grown in Holland were from English bred material, namely from large seeded peas known as meaty horticulture peas. The Dutch name for this pea type was ‘Schokker’, the peas being grown predominantly in the Zeeland region.
In 1901, the Dutch breeder R.J. Mansholt began selecting from the English-bred marrowfat variety Harrisons Glory. This became an integral part of the Dutch breeding programme and by 1905 he had a short straw high-yielding variety, Mansholts Kortstro Schokker.
In the 1920s, the marrowfat variety Mansholts Glory Schokker was introduced with a further selection for straw shortness. This was used in the Koopman breeding programme to produce a very large seeded variety, Jumboka, first listed in 1935. Meanwhile, Zelka, a smaller seeded variety with fusarium wilt resistance and reliable yield characteristics, had been produced.
In 1931, trying to combine the reliability of Zelka with the large seed size of Jumboka, Koopmans produced selections which eventually resulted in the variety Big Ben. In further developments, Big Ben was crossed with Zelka and by the late 1960s the variety Maro was registered and was listed in the UK in 1980, bred by Cebeco Seeds.
Harrisons Glory, Zelka and Big Ben were commercially used by Batchelors Foods Ltd until they were replaced in the late 1960s with Maro for their packet and canning pea businesses.
Today although no longer on the PGRO recommended list, Maro is represented, maintained and remains available as a commercially-produced heirloom variety in the UK by Church of Bures.
Breeding work continues to bring improved varieties to growers and end users alike with three modern varieties now on the PGRO Recommended List, the latest added in 2016. All of these have improved characters of earliness of ripening, shortness of straw and standing ability - while being resistant to the old enemy of pea wilt.
In this way, the descendants of the peas enjoyed in the 18th century are still being enjoyed today - even if they are no longer usually sold with butter and salt from stalls to workmen in the early morning hours. In the 21st century, as well as being on supermarket shelves in cans, and served as mushy peas to accompany traditional British fish & chips, they are just as likely to be consumed as wasabi peas in trendy bars!
Keith Costello (pictured with Roger Vickers of PGRO) worked in the pea industry for over 41 years. He retired in 2015 but remains an active consultant.