|Religion, folklore and now Facebook encourage us to give things up for Lent. And if you’ve got a meat-, alcohol-, chocolate- or sugar-shaped hole in your life for the next few weeks, there are centuries of history behind the foodstuff you could fill it with: carlin peas. And there are many delicious ways to cook them too - see our growing collection of carlin pea recipes.|
Carlin peas - the dark brown dried pea which was probably first cultivated by monks in the middle ages, has long been eaten soaked, slow-boiled and served with lashings of malt vinegar, and now makes an excellent British substitute for chickpeas - have been traditional fare during Lent in the north east of England, Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The association is so strong that Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent, became known as Carlin Sunday. There are numerous theories behind the tradition - could the very word ‘carling’ come from ‘Care Sunday’, another name for Passion Sunday?
Or does it all date back to the civil war, when Royalist Newcastle was under siege from the Scots and starving Tynesiders were saved by a cargo of peas washed ashore from a shipwreck a fortnight before Easter day?
‘Carlin’ is also a dialect word for ‘old woman’ or ‘witch’, and a fascinating article about the traditions of festive pea-eating (no, really!) suggests a pagan goddess-worshipping festival incorporated into Christian Lent, already strong on pulse-munching, yet retained as a folk tradition around the beginning of November, when parched peas are also eaten (‘parching’ means long, slow boiling to create a mushy texture). It’s worth noting that another name for carlin peas is ‘little godmothers’.
Carlin peas seem to encourage wildly varied and inventive naming. When we at Hodmedod started selling them we used the appealing dialect name black badgers. Some of our customers (looking at you, River Cottage and Cafe Kino) insist on calling them Badger Beans. They are technically peas, being a variety of the common edible pea, Pisum sativum, distinguished as the subspecies or variety arvense.
Elsewhere they're known as brown badgers, black peas, grey peas, maple peas or pigeon peas - apparently pigeons love and thrive on them so they're much sought after by pigeon fanciers (though they're not to be confused with the tropical legume species Cajanus cajan, also known as the pigeon pea).
It’s obvious why for centuries they’ve made a great outdoors snack for chilly festivals, fairgrounds and marketplaces. You can still buy them in Bury and Preston markets, boiled into submission, slathered in salt and vinegar, served up in a brown paper bag or plastic tub; while northeastern pubs would offer them cold as a bar snack on Carlin Sunday.
Parched Peas and a bag of potatoes at Preston's Flag Market
Other traditional recipes include seasoning with brown sugar, butter and rum (not exactly self-denial, here); mixing them into patties with breadcrumbs and onions; and boiling them up with a ham shank.
Carlin peas are much favoured in Japan, too, where they're stewed in sweet syrup and served in dishes like mitsumame, a summer dish of sweet carlin peas served with fruit and cubes of gelatin. More of the carlin peas grown in Britain are eaten in Japan than at home.
Carlin peas also make a perfect British-grown substitute for chickpeas or even Puy-type dark green lentils (trials suggest that growing chickpeas in Britain is unlikely to be viable on any scale but our small Suffolk lentil trial went well last year and we're growing more this year). Their nutty flavour, suggestive of chestnuts, and firm texture when cooked work well in any recipe that calls for chickpeas, whether whole or pureed for hummus. Carlin peas are also excellent in salads, especially with roasted vegetables.
And perhaps carlin peas could be the answer to Lenten sugar-cravings. I was charmed to come across a man who remembers being sent off to the Saturday afternoon pictures as a child in Blackburn in the late 40s, when rationing meant there were hardly any sweets to be had, with a penny to buy a paper bag of parched peas to munch through the film instead.
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Last year (field scale chickpea production year 2) was a real struggle: drought through much of the season, intense heat in late May, then extraordinary rainfall in August. This year (chickpea year 3) hasn’t started much better to be honest: a cold start and prolonged wet conditions are not what chickpeas like.