Pea and ham soup is the quintessential, traditional winter soup – comforting , filling but above all tasty. Fresh pea soup served with mint and a light chicken stock is often associated with summer – but a hearty dried-pea soup with some smoked or cured ham is a real winter treat. It is such a traditional winter soup for the simple reason that peas are easy to dry and store. Like other dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, red beans or broad beans the dried variety provide an abundance of nutrients to keep populations fed and nourished at a time when it is impossible to cultivate fresh crops.
Peas boiled in water with a pinch of salt would be tasteless and unappetising. They require a savoury punch and the best companion to a winter pea soup has got to be some kind of cured ham – yet another traditional source of winter food. Fresh pork would have been rare since pigs were typically slaughtered in the late autumn and the various cuts and pieces brined, salted or cured for later use.
The unique flavours of cured ham guarantee that an otherwise common soup can be transformed from one of culinary insignificance to one of culinary excellence. You could also use a traditional cured sausage rather than ham – they too are packed with flavour and are a traditional accompaniment to pea soup.
1 packet of dried peas (typically 500 gr) or 1 packet of frozen peas.
1 large onion.
Some butter and lard.
Some cured ham: you can use any cut – cured belly pork, bacon, pancetta, left over salted boiled ham. I used left over ham from my pork hock.
Salt & pepper.
Day 1: only if using dried peas
Soak the peas in water and 1 tbs. of salt over night.[*]
For the stock
Place the cured ham in some water with a teaspoon of cloves, a bay leaf and some juniper berries. Bring to a gentle heat until the water is steaming but not boiling (not even simmering) for around thirty minutes. Cured ham is ready to eat and does not require cooking to render it fit for consumption – the purpose of heating the meat is to leach as much of the flavour out as possible and create a delicious stock. Over-cooking cured meats on a rolling boil or even simmer is not only unnecessary it renders the final meat tasteless and dry. When ready remove the meat and cut into small pieces. If you are using a cut with some bone remove and add to the soup for added flavour and nutrition.
For the soup
Fry the onion in some butter and lard until they have turned translucent. Rinse the soaked peas and pour them into the pot with the onion, butter and lard. Stir until all the peas are coated in fat. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. If you have some bones add them now – they will add further flavour and nutrients.
Leave to simmer. If using frozen peas it will only take around 10-15 minutes. If using dried peas this could take longer – anywhere from one hour to three hours. See footnote.
When ready remove any bones and blend the peas with a hand-held blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Seasoning tip: keep adding the salt until the savoury flavours from the stock (amino acids, electroytes and minerals) and the salt find each other and click. At that point the soup will taste just perfect.
Finally add the cut pieces of meat. To make it a more hearty meal poach an egg and add to the soup. If you add some boiled potatoes and serve this soup with a good slice of sourdough bread and butter this is a hearty family meal capable of nourishing any family.
[*] Even after an overnight soak it can take hours for the peas to soften depending on how old they are. I have sometimes had to cook my dried peas for up to four hours before they softened even after an overnight soak! Unfortunately there is no way of knowing when buying a packet of dried peas whether they are one year old or ten years old. They are perfectly safe to eat but it can be hard to gauge the amount of time needed to prepare this soup. This principle extends to all legumes and pulses – be they chick-peas, lentils or red beans. For this reason I often buy chickpeas, lentils and red beans tinned. For pea soup frozen peas taste better than canned peas. In my experience frozen peas deliver a similar taste and texture to the more traditional dried peas and they require nothing but a 15 minute quick boil. You decide!