Sunday, March 11, 2007

I am a Curious Yellow:

It appears that Canadian cuisine can be color blind. For some reason, that I have yet to uncover, French Canadian Pea Soup is traditionally made with yellow peas.

What would the Jolly Green Giant do with this revelation? Perhaps start a spin-off company? Designate a golden cartoon side-kick?

As I work towards the culmination of the American-Canadian Cooking Project, I’ve come to the next menu item on the list provided by Jill in Ottawa – French Canadian Pea Soup. I must rid myself of the normal assumptions. Apparently, yellow is the new green, at least in Canada.
I start by investigating the culture from which this dish originated. There are roughly 6.5 million French Canadians, descended from French explorers and colonist, who live in Canada and most live in the province of Quebec with some residing in the Maritime Provinces. Those who live in the Maritimes are often referred to as “Acadians.”

For some reason, French Canadian Pea Soup, or soupe aux pois, is the leading dish of French Canadian cuisine, although I have trouble determining exactly why. I find some speculation that pea soup can be tracked back to the daily meals of sixteenth-century fishermen. Author Habeeb Salloum writes of French Canadians being taunted with the name, “Peasoupers.” Another writer says it’s a traditional dish for Friday reflecting past religious practices. There’s a passage in the 19th century novel "Maria Chapdelaine", where author Louis Hemon describes pea soup as a part of the ritual of daily farm life. Even the Campbell’s Soup Company got into the act starting in 1918, offering a brand in Canada called “Habitant French-Country Pea Soup.” The soup pea crop prospers around the town of St. Jean Baptiste in Manitoba, which is called the soup pea capital of Canada. I suspect that this humble, golden bowl of soup may actually go back as far as the 16th century, with origins in the French country kitchen.

The recipe is quite simple and not far removed from the typical green variety. It consists of whole yellow peas, salted pork, onion and seasonings – often the herb savory – simmered together. Salt pork, or a ham bone, is cooked in the soup, and then can be chopped and put back into the soup. Some recipes recommend pureeing a portion of the peas before serving. A regional version in Newfoundland can include diced turnips and carrots, topped with dumplings.

The idea of using whole yellow peas is stressed time and again, and one writer even goes so far as to explain that there is a marked difference in flavor between whole and split yellow peas. Split peas are mild in flavor and soft in texture with an earthy flavor. A whole dried pea is similar to a lentil. Yellow peas are part of the legume family and are derived from spring sown field peas (pisum sativum). They are sown in March and normally harvested in July and August. Whole dried peas have been used in cooking for more than 10,000 years, originally emerging in the Middle East.

The massive reference book, Larousse Gastronomique, includes a French recipe for traditional peas, called peas a la bonne femme, which might be distant relative. It includes pearl onions and bacon sautéed in butter and then simmered with fresh shelled peas, herbs and consommé. I decide on a recipe for the March 18th Canadian feast that includes the herb savory, since I have very little experience with it. Larousse Gastronomique says that savory is an aromatic herb from southern Europe that has a scent similar to mint and thyme.

Alas, I may not be able to produce the authentic dish. Having searched high and low in gourmet shops and grocery stores, I have yet to find a whole yellow pea. They are all entirely split.

But the true reason that yellow peas are used, and the explanation for why the soup has become such a part of French Canadian lore, remains a culinary mystery. I hope that Jill can provide the

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Pea soup is one of the recipes that adapts quite well to my favorite substitution of barbecue sauce for salt pork or ham hock. Nice to have a vegetarian alternative. I make it this way at home, and my Canadian husband never notices the difference -- though he might pick up on the color change if I used the yellow split peas!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Lydia - what a great substition. Makes perfect sense - I'll have to give it a try!

Anonymous said...

Found your article while searching for a recipe similar to my french-canadian grandmother's.

I'll re-stress how important whole yellow pea's are, as split-pea soup is an entirely different creature with a totally different taste and texture.

Also, Google is filled with nearly identical recipe's (whole yellow peas + ham/pork) from a variety of origins, including Sweden and Poland that I saw.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I wish we could have found the whole yellow peas, and we looked everywhere! The split peas certainly dissolved quickly, and I was hoping for a thicker consistency that you would likely get with whole peas. As is usually the case, I will probably come across them, now that I'm not looking. If so, I'll make the recipe again and report on the results.