Small but mighty: The power of the pea for a new generation of growers

Game Changers: Why not eschew avocados and chickpeas for home-grown plant protein?

I’ve always loved the scene in the film Amélie when Audrey Tautou plunges her hand into a bag of dried lentils. She does it just for the sensual pleasure of letting the silken pellets grip her hand in their almost liquid way. Health and safety bedamned. I did my own version recently with a bag of dried peas Rose Greene gave me at Mother Earth, the food festival hosted by Hot Press in Leixlip celebrating St Brigid and all things earthy and motherly.

The Irish, organically grown peas came from Keane’s Organic Farm in Co Meath. They were grown in a field of barley, in a reciprocal arrangement. The pea shoots found perfect supports to clamber up in the solid stems of barley, all of them harvested together and then separated into two crops. Greene and her partner Margaux Dejardin run the food and fermentation business Four Hands Studio and they are selling the peas in small batches. Greene was on the panel I chaired, where we talked about sexism in the food world with dairy farmer Sinead Moran from Gleann Buí, chef Jess Murphy, and hospitality and event consultant Majken Bech-Bailey. Greene’s warm pea hummus had a queue of tasters that stretched the length of the tent.

There is a huge market for plant protein, for people and animals. Feed is expensive and comes with a huge environmental cost. We import 1.2 million tonnes of animal feed annually, soy and grain, much of which is grown on deforested land. Milk is a seasonal product, Moran explained, tailing off when the grass growth stops, unless their diet is supplemented with animal feed. Peas come from a family of plants that improve the soil by making it more fertile, fixing nitrogen naturally for free and without the risk of run-off into waterways.

The experiment with organic farmer Donal Keane yielded just 100kg of peas in the first year, Green explained. In the second year the crop was lost to weather and the third year the yield went up to 1,000kg. Unlike the frozen versions we’re more familiar with, these peas have a long shelf-life, as a dried good that can be packaged in a paper bag, doesn’t need chilling and can be rehydrated when needed. The potential big future for large-scale Irish-grown peas is a network of co-operatives of farmers growing and supplying chefs such as Greene, along with consumers happy to support the market by eschewing avocados and chickpeas for home-grown plant protein. They are small, humble and green but inside these pellets lies a fix for soil, farm resilience and climate: a delicious regenerative revolution.