The Secret Cultivar

This Summer, I find myself returning to Italy, to the hidden gem called Le Marche. Situated between the Apennines and the Adriatic, this often overlooked state is a gastronomic utopia. The merroir of the sparkling azure Adriatic to the East is tasted in the local mantis shrimp and a profusion of crustaceans. The rolling plains leading up to the hills are ideal for landrace wheat production, making the local Mancini pasta not only delicious but also historic and tied to the region. That said, and it might be gilding the lily, but local truffles abound in the cooler weather. It’s also the starting point for my latest quest: I’m off in search of lost flavors again. This time, I’m hot on the trail of the legendary Rice Pea. Now protected by the International Slow Food movement, it narrowly survived extinction by clinging to the rocky soil of the Apennines dividing the Marches from Umbria. But how did it get from there to here? Who brought it, and why? Before it’s all said and done, I fully expect to find myself in the shadow of the Templars. But first things first, I’m going to need some decompression time on the lovely beach at Numana, some stuffed & fried olives ascolana, spaghetti al tono and a liter or three of the crisp, local vermentino. Now where was I?

“The delicate white field pea is the sweetest and most refined of the lady category of pea. The unripe pods were prepared in dishes. The peas themselves, after several years effort, have been made available to South Carolina chefs. They should become generally available next year (2018).” Dr. David Shields

As a cook with a lay interest in the food history of South Carolina, this really all started for me a few years back. I first hosted a fundraising supper for the Clempson Coastal Organic Research Extension in association with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation in 2014. With the encouragement of Chef Frank Lee at the Old Village Post House, I began a deep dive into the food history of South Carolina. 5 years later, I’m still diving.

During that supper, we featured the newly restored Carolina Rice Pea, a type of field pea so small and diminutive that it was little larger than the average grain of rice. When asked at the time, I was told that this was a complementary crop, grown as a nitrogen fixer in the soil, which rice depletes. The same Italian workers laying out the system of canals upon which some of our fields are based most likely brought them here in the late 17th Century. Remember- in 17th Century Europe, the Spanish and the Italians were the European subject matter experts of rice cultivation. And the English weren’t about to go to the Spanish for anything, least of all an intellectual handout…

Not long after that supper, the New York Times hosted travel articles highlighting the places and cuisine of Umbria, directly West of the Marches. In the high hills sits lake Trasimino, around which this ancient cultivar, almost lost in the 1950’s, was slowly being restored, painstakingly planted and harvested by hand. It had survived Mussolini’s push towards monoculture to be very nearly abandoned.

Then, in November of 2015, I found myself at the historic Gatewood House in Charleston in the presence of a documentary production crew and Kim Severson of the New York Times. The motley crew of Usual Suspects were present: the omniscient David Shields, the irrepressible Glenn Roberts (founder of Anson Mills, a great supporter of Southern Chefs and to whom I’ll always be grateful), Kevin Mitchell (soon to become the Chef Scholar) B.J. Dennis, the great practitioner of the Gullah Geechee kitchen and the Grande Doyenne of Southern Receipts herself, Nathalie Dupree. I skulked about and tried to be useful for a change.

When Miss Nathalie digs your cowpea game…

The occasion for which we were assembled was a tasting of some 20+ relatives of the southern Cowpea. There were Field Peas (Petite Rouge & Tyler,) Blackeyes (Purple Hull & Dixie Lee.) There were Crowders (the smoky black crowders were my favorite hands down.) White Acre and Lady Finger cream peas, “Tresimino” and Baker White Rice Peas.

The recipes for these all came from one of several pamphlets published by the Tuskeegee Institute and George Washington Carver. Recipes all about Southern cow peas. What was almost lost but restored in Umbria was almost lost but restored here in South Carolina. Over centuries, we have made them our own. Here’s Carver’s actual cookbook & pamphlet, courtesy the good folks over at The Internet Archive:

We’re almost certain the Lowcountry rice pea comes from Italy. But where did it originate? Like other field peas, evidence seems to point towards Africa, but when? Does it come across the Mediterranean as a result of down the line trading with Phoenicians? Did it come from post Alexandrian, Ptolemaic Egypt? Did the Carthaginians bring it during the incursions of the Punic Wars with Rome? Do they arrive later, carried by the Moors on the winds of the spice trade? There are other legends too: that rice peas were around with the Etruscans, that they were introduced and maintained by Rome. Some say they were traded at the exchange in Arles, dating them to the period of Avignon Papacy and the anti-popes. If I had to guess, as is common with such conspiracies, I’d lay the laurel at the foot of the Templars.

So I’m heading back to Italy. This time, I’m in search of some magic beans. I hope to find a simple answer, but I won’t hold my breath. All too often, my big fat mouth asks a question out loud without thinking first, and I’m reminded of the adage “The only reward for hard work, is MORE hard work.”

Quite possibly true, but when has that ever stopped me before? On my Undiscovered Charleston tours, I often preface these conjectured stories, saying simply, “I’m not a scholar- I’m a chef after all!” I hope to find answers, but either way, & as Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I may find myself in Umbria’s Lago Trasimeno, I may find myself in the Vatican Library; I may find the Truth of the Templars, but I’m certain I’ll find deliciousness before I find my way home! Now about those fried olives…

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