It's been a mighty long wait, but at last we're rolling in Sugar Snaps, grabbing handfuls as we pass the basket on the kitchen table, slicing them superfine to make snap slaw, stir-frying them with summer mushrooms, dipping them in everything from guacamole to tunafish salad.
Sugarsnaps take longer than other peas, about 75 days, and they make enormous vines that need serious trellises. But once they get going they bear for well over a month, offering pounds and pounds of easily picked, crisp, juicy sweet, intensely pea-flavored pods that are as the saying goes "not sold in stores."
Sugar Snaps climb 8 feet and more if given support -- which we provided until I got sick of dragging a stepladder into the garden. Now they're supported to 6 feet and then let flop back into picking range. The pole on the left is wound with an 8-footer; the brown spot about 1/4 of the way up is a patch of dry grass. You may notice many weeds in this picture. We will discuss that some other time.
A wimpy imitation of Sugar Snaps, grown mostly in Mexico and Guatemala, is now available at upscale greengrocers' for a good part of the year. And in early summer many farmers' markets offer decent snap peas. But almost none of them are realio-trulio Sugar Snaps; adequate-but-unwonderful bush varieties make a lot more sense for commercial growers.* Home gardeners often go for bush snaps too, if the catalogs are any indication. Although we have not grown Sugar Pop, Sugar Rae or Sugar Gem, we have tried Sugar Ann, Sugar Daddy, Sugar Bon, and Sugar Mel. None, unfortunately, are anywhere near as tasty as the original and that goes also for Super Sugar Snap, a vine almost as large as Sugar Snap but supposedly earlier, heavier-yielding and more resistant to pea afflictions, especially powdery mildew. It isn't. Or at least it wasn't for us. In fact, the only snap pea that comes close is Amish Snap, an heirloom variety sold by Seed Savers Exchange. It's a little shorter than Sugar Snap and doesn't bear for quite as long, but it's substantially earlier, and the peas inside the pale green pods are uniquely sweet and full-flavored.
Setup for an informal taste-test (pod ends are broken off because you can pick and string them in the same motion if you leave the stem end behind). Amish Snap is the one on the left.
Many food writers think snap peas are a recent development. Not so. A curved snap pea called sickle pea shows up in garden literature in the late 17th century. Straighter podded varieties, known as butter peas and butter sugar peas, came along in the mid 1800's and pushed sickle peas aside. Butter peas were still common as recently as the 1950's; you could get the seed at Agway. But then somehow they became so rare that when Dr. Calvin Lamborn's Sugar Snap was released in 1979, everyone (including, at the time, Dr. Lamborn) thought it was a brand new vegetable. Most definitions explain that snap peas differ from flat-podded snow peas because the snap pea pod wall is much thicker. True, but far more to the point "at least the point of tastiness - is that snap peas taste best when the peas inside are full size. Snow peas must be eaten while still almost flat; the peas in those pods taste dreadful.
This is Carouby de Maussane, the only snow pea I know that still tastes good after the peas start to swell. The vines are even taller than Sugar Snaps and they bear vast quantities of enormous pods; the ones in this picture are babies. They also have exquisite edible flowers:
So why the seed is getting hard to find is a mystery. Last time I looked, Pinetree Garden Seeds was still selling Caroubys, but I'm thinkin' next year we'd better start saving our own. * Farmers have so many reasons to shun true Sugar Snaps you'd die of boredom reading them all. But here are a few: Lateness is a major flaw when there's profit in being first. The extended harvest means repeated pickings that increase labor costs. And the trellis must not only be built â add costs for labor and materials â it must also be taken down when it's time to rotate crops. Trellises and tractors are not friends, either... There may be a customer somewhere who cares enough about quality to pay the huge premium a grower would have to charge for Sugar Snaps, but whoever it is is probably pretty lonely.
Writer Leslie Land blogs about gardening, food and design at Leslieland.com.
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