It’s hard to write about something when you don’t even know what to call it! Grey peas? In England they are also known as maple peas, Carlin peas and pigeon peas, but in Latvian they’re pelēkie zirņi, the thought of which for me immediately conjures up memories of Ziemassvētki and Vecgada vakari past…
For my family it isn’t a New Year’s Eve without pelēkie zirņi, but even though it might be hard to imagine the holidays without them, there are really no similar peas popular here that they can be compared to. One source I found said that the grey peas that are prevalent in Latvia are of the L. Pisum sativum arvense variety, but whatever the case, the unassuming legumes are so well-liked that they are considered the unofficial national food – even though they’re eaten but once a year.
Peas, grains and beans have long been staples of Baltic cuisine, due to ease of storage and the short growing season that enable successful crops even during the short, cool Latvian summers. Full of vitamins B, C and E, they are also a valuable source of protein, and their stronghold on the Latvian menu persisted until the introduction of the potato in the early 19th century.
Tradition dictates that when grey peas are prepared, every person must eat at least a handful of the pelēkie zirņi. The saying goes that on New Year’s Eve the pot of peas must be eaten entirely (so plan accordingly when preparing!) so that no tears will be shed in the New Year. Grey peas and bacon are one of the most popular traditional Latvian dishes during the holiday season, and in many households is guaranteed a place on the Christmas table.
Your biggest hurdle in preparing this dish will be to source the grey peas. Balticshop.com stocks them (but requires 2-3 weeks to ship from Latvia), so your best bet might be to get in touch with someone traveling from Latvia, or to visit one of the seasonal Ziemassvētku tirdziņi held in your area. This year I will be making the Zelta Saule brand, which is one of the options carried by Balticshop, but in previous years we've had many other brands and they've all served up well.
Grey Peas and Bacon
1 lb of grey peas
1 lb of bacon
After rinsing the peas, cover them with cold water and let them soak overnight (at the very least for three hours). The next day strain the peas and rinse them again, then cover with cold water in a small pot and bring to a boil. Continue cooking over low heat for 1 ½ to 2 hours until tender, adding salt to taste about 10 minutes before they’re ready.
Meanwhile, dice an onion and the bacon – we prefer smoked – and fry those up. When the peas are ready, mix all three. Serve warm! I enjoy a dollop of sour cream with mine, although purists might argue that this detracts from the authenticity… I’ve also heard that the beans can be added to the bacon and fried for a few minutes together before serving, and the dish can be seasoned with herb of preference – ours is probably dill.
Say what you will, Latvian grey peas have been listed on the European Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) list. It’s a good, hearty food for a cold winter’s eve, and the tradition behind the dish is what will keep pelēkie zirņi on our New Year’s Eve menu. Have you ever had grey peas? Do Lithuanians and Estonians have a similar traditional dish?
With only a week left until Christmas, we are in the final days of this countdown. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series up until now, and stay tuned tomorrow for a visit to a Ziemassvētku tirdziņš in Rīga!