As he guided his giant harvester through a field in eastern England, James Williams still had another nine hours to go before finishing his 12-hour shift. Even then, other workers would continue through the night gathering a once ubiquitous vegetable that growers believe could be about to have a new moment in British life.
The frozen pea, a humble staple of the country’s cuisine, may be on its way back.
At least, that’s what Britain’s vegetable producers are striving for, as food prices spike and shoppers increasingly turn to the freezer cabinets in supermarkets to help keep weekly costs down.
That, growers say, offers another opportunity for pea producers to restore the popularity of a product that was a staple of the 1970s, but which fell out of fashion as shoppers sought out farm-to-table produce like broccoli, peppers, avocados and other, more exotic, vegetables.
“Consumers are looking to frozen food now, in the cost of living crisis, because frozen is cost effective,” said Holly Jones, crop association executive of the British Growers Association, an umbrella group for the fresh produce industry, referring to the squeeze on living standards that is resonating across multiple industries but none more so than food.
She acknowledged that there is some stigma around frozen food, which is often associated with calorific processed products, and that some Britons overlook frozen vegetables like peas that are rich in protein.
“You can eat a healthy diet from the frozen aisle, it is possible,” said Ms. Jones. “There is a lot of potential with the great British pea.”
In the 12 months to July 2023, Britons spent more than 150 million pounds, or about $191 million, on frozen peas in supermarkets, according to the British Frozen Foods Federation, a trade association, citing figures from Kantar, a leading data research organization. That was an increase of more than 10 percent in cash terms compared with the previous year through July, although the volume sold was mostly flat, and even dropped slightly to around 107,000 tons.
While below the recent peak during the pandemic, that is still a significant quantity, and producers think that more Britons may be tempted to give frozen vegetables a second look as prices continue to rise. Overall food prices surged by more than 18.4 percent in May.
Internet searches for frozen peas, including recipes, increased 20 percent in a year, according to an industry campaign group called — perhaps inevitably — Yes Peas.
Some TV chefs have offered up new culinary ideas, including pea pesto and pea mash or smash, perhaps prompted by the growing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets.
And last month the sector promoted the nutritional and other benefits of the product in what it called the Great British Pea Week, an annual event that coincides with the start of the harvest, which runs until mid-August.
Peas were eaten by Greeks and Romans and were mentioned in Britain after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Nearly a millennium later, the country is 90 percent self-sufficient in production of the vegetable, which is well suited to its temperate climate.
Ubiquitous in the 1970s, the pea’s image was getting dowdy by the 1990s when Britain’s prime minister at the time, John Major, was depicted in a satirical TV show, “Spitting Image,” as a gray figure having an exceptionally boring conversation with his wife while eating peas.
But Stephen Francis, managing director of Fen Peas, a cooperative that harvests 5,500 acres of land owned by 82 farms in Lincolnshire, traces the pea’s fall from grace to the early years of this century. That, he said, was when a restaurant chain, Harvester, contemplated not offering peas because diners were leaving them uneaten on their plates. (Mr. Francis said the problem was quickly resolved with marginally more expensive, better quality, peas.)
The recovery began, he said, with the pandemic, which closed restaurants and hospitality venues and prompted Britons to cook more at home, at a time when some imported vegetables were unavailable. Now, Britain’s tough economic times make frozen peas particularly attractive, he added.
“People are thinking, ‘I probably don’t miss my avocado that much, my peas are very good value for money and there is no waste,’” said Mr. Francis. “You pour out what you want, there is no preparation, they are ready in five minutes and bang, there you go.”
In perhaps a sign of an upturn, Mr. Francis has increased his sales by at least a tenth in recent years and said he could sell even more. His customers could do with 10 percent more tonnage than he will supply this year.
And, having spent more than four decades in the business, Mr. Francis, 61, has chalked up another success: He prevailed in a long, ultimately victorious battle to secure a pea emoji on cellphones.
“They all say I’ve gone absolutely crackers on it,” he laughed.
In Lincolnshire, one of Britain’s most fertile agricultural areas, where the aroma of freshly cut peas fills the air, Mr. Williams pilots a 25-ton harvester known as a pea viner. Moving at less than one mile an hour, it cuts a crop that grows just 18 inches off the ground, funneling the vegetables up into internal machinery that separates the peas from the pods.
After around 25 minutes, a truck drove alongside and, with a flick of a switch, Mr. Williams unloaded two tons of shiny green peas.
“Physically, it’s not hard — but mentally, it’s hard; you constantly have to concentrate,” he said, “If you go too fast with a big volume crop you can get it all bunged up, it’s very easy to clog up.”
At Greenyard Frozen U.K., a company that freezes peas sold in many supermarkets, Andy Dexter, the process manager of the company’s Boston plant, said peas had always been widely eaten, but that because they are “the norm, they are taken a bit for granted.”
Now, he said, “cost is driving demand because it’s cheaper and has a good shelf life on it.”
On arrival at Greenyard’s plant, peas are checked for tenderness in a machine called a tenderometer and are then washed several times in machinery that separates any remaining pods, split peas, stones or other detritus for removal.
Finally a sea of peas flows down the vibrating conveyor belt. They will first be heated to 70 degrees, then briefly blanched at 90 degrees before being rapidly frozen.
Pea professionals like to call freezing “nature’s pause button” and the faster the move from harvesting to the freezer the sweeter the vegetable tends to be (top-quality ones will make that journey in 150 minutes or less).
Mr. Dexter, 57, said that even after 39 years of working with them, he never gets bored of peas.
“I still get the same buzz every year,” he said, “I know I sound sad, but it’s always good to see the first peas in and the last ones out.”