The Circus Gardener's Kitchen

seasonal vegetarian recipes with a side helping of food politics

pea, avocado and basil risotto

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I grow a beautiful variety of pea on my allotment which for many years I’d known as Lancashire Lad, but which I’ve recently discovered is actually, rather more prosaically, called Victorian Purple Podded. Both Lancashire Lad and Victorian Purple Podded are what is known as heritage varieties, neither being available commercially.

Such is the extraordinary way seed production is regulated that it is in fact illegal to buy or sell many heritage vegetable seed varieties here in the UK. This means that the variety of pea I grow is basically only being kept in existence by gardeners like me who grow it year on year and save and swap the seed, and by organisations like Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library.

Furthermore, under proposed new EU legislation, all vegetable seed varieties will in future have to be registered (along with payment of a hefty annual fee) by any company wishing to “grow, reproduce or trade” those seeds, in effect a form of intellectual property right. Ironically, the seeds that will be most under threat from this legislation are “true” seeds, not the commercially viable hybridised seeds. I will probably be banging on in more detail about the dark politics behind seed licensing legislation and about the serious dangers of reliance upon these hybridised F1 seeds in some of my future posts.

For now I will simply say that the role of the small scale farmers, vegetable growers and allotment gardeners in protecting our true seed heritage has never been so important.

As its name suggests, Victorian Purple Podded is a variety of pea that was popular during the Victorian era. One of the reasons it didn’t find favour amongst commercial seed sellers is that it is a tall pea plant, growing as high as seven feet. Commercial seed sellers focus on dwarf varieties, which make the peas easier for commercial growers to harvest mechanically (meaning reduced labour costs) because the pods are all roughly at the same height. This height characteristic is paramount to commercial growers because their prime focus is on keeping production costs low rather than on, say, appearance or taste. Back in Victorian times, when farming and gardening were labour intensive activities, there were a large number of these taller varieties of pea plant around but most have since been lost forever, cast aside in the commercially-driven imperative to grow the “more convenient” varieties.

But my Victorian Purple Podded not only produces perfect, sweet tasting peas it also adds a glorious splash of colour to my allotment (the Circus Garden) from May through to August. It has striking dark purple and pink two-tone flowers and produces purple pods (although the peas themselves are green). It’s a much more interesting specimen than the squat pea plants produced from commercial seed packets that I see on so many of the plots around mine.

This commercialisation of seeds, the very stuff of life, is gradually shrinking the numbers of varieties available to us, with potentially disastrous long term consequences for the seed gene pool.

pea flowersharvested peasbasil growinga spoonful of pesto

OK, that’s enough politics for now, let’s go into the kitchen and do something interesting with this lovely, precious little pea that continues to defy the odds.

You really can’t beat the taste of a freshly podded pea but it has to be acknowledged that peas do freeze exceptionally well, so if you aren’t fortunate enough to have freshly harvested heritage peas to hand, frozen organic peas would work well in this recipe.

This dish involves a lot of stirring, so you can’t wander off and leave it once you start, but trust me, it’s really worth the effort. The combination of pea, avocado and basil makes for a stunningly good risotto.

For a vegan option, omit the Parmesan and reduce the amount of olive oil when making the basil pesto.

pea, avocado and basil risotto


large handful of basil leaves
30 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese
70 ml olive oil, plus 2 tbsp for cooking
10 g pine nuts
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 avocados
1 onion, finely chopped
70 g shelled fresh peas (if you don’t have freshly picked, use the same quantity of frozen peas)
200g Arborio or similar risotto rice
glass of white wine
1 litre vegetable stock
1/2 tsp sea salt


1. Make a thick pesto sauce by blitzing the basil, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan in a blender.

2. Halve, peel and stone the avocados. Cut each half in half again lengthways, and then cut each quarter crossways into three.

3. Bring the stock to a boil then reduce to a low simmer.

4. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large pan and over a medium heat gently fry the onions for 4-5 minutes until soft. Tip the rice into the pan and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring well to ensure all the grains of rice have contact with the oil.

5. Turn up the heat and pour in the wine, stirring to deglaze. Add the salt and a ladle of stock and reduce the heat back to medium. Keep stirring, adding a ladleful of stock whenever the rice starts to look dry. After 15 minutes add the peas.

6. Cook for a further 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Test the rice to see if it is cooked. When ready it should be al dente. If it isn’t ready, continue adding stock and stirring as before. You may not need to add all the stock.

7. Remove from the heat, add 2 tablespoons of the pesto (the rest will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days) and the avocado. Stir gently but thoroughly to combine all of the ingredients. Serve immediately.

Categories: vegetarian


6 replies

  1. Seed legislation is crazy isn’t it, so good that organisations like the heritage seed library, and gardeners like you, are helping to preserve lovely varieties like this Victorian purple podded pea. I’m growing these with my 5 year old, she loves the novelty of the purple pods and the pretty flowers. As do I!
    Lovely recipe and I do like the idea of a smoking gun.

    • Hi
      I agree..we are becoming more and more strangled by the big, greedy corporations. Also important to note is the need for varieties of beans and peas for our humble but vital bumblebees.

      Do you mind my asking if you would be agreeable to swapping some seed. I have a wonderful variety of climbing French beans called ‘District Nurse’ (it’s worth googling it) that a friend gave me. I have been searching for someone who may have some Lancashire Lad, also known as ‘Victorian Purple ‘ peas. Perhaps we could swap some.

      Kindest Regards
      Rob Waterhouse.

      • Hi Rob

        Thanks very much for posting your comments. I’d be very happy to swap some seeds with you. I am on a personal mission to help spread the purple podded pea as far and wide as possible as it is such a beautiful variety of pea. Following your suggestion I have just googled “District Nurse” and the bean looks and sounds lovely, like a purple Borlotti. I will e-mail you with my contact details so that we can arrange a swap!


  2. I just found your blog! I really enjoyed reading about the heritage seeds and the politics surrounding them. It’s awesome that you’re keeping this piece of history alive. 🙂


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