Peas that are out of fashion

Maple peas, from garden to carlings
Maple peas, from garden to carlings

written by Heather Elvidge

What topsy-turvy weather we’ve had. A few days gave us some tantalising glimpses of spring, then winter’s cold breath swept over us once again. That’s March for you.

Before the chill there were more spring flowers to enjoy. The first primroses and celandines were out in the woods, and in 
gardens the miniature 
daffodils that usually flower in February were bearing promising buds. Spells of sun tempted crocus and polyanthus into bloom, a treat for the sparrows that plucked and ate the petals. Now spring is on hold, and we’re back in our thermals.

This Sunday is Passion Sunday, the fifth in Lent. In the north it’s also called Carling Sunday, after the special meal eaten on this day.

As Sundays weren’t 
included in the Lent fast they offered an opportunity for a little treat. We still eat Mother’s Day’s simnel cake, and Palm Sunday’s spicy fig pie; and in a few places they’ll be tucking into a feast of, well, greyish-brown peas.

Carlings are maple peas, a variety of field pea that’s fallen out of fashion. Not because they taste awful – they have a pleasant, nutty flavour – it’s because of their colour. Today we expect our peas to be green, so maple peas are fed to racing pigeons.

Our forebears didn’t care about the colour. They soaked the dried peas overnight, rinsed and boiled them, then fried them in lard seasoned with pepper. Carlings were popular – pubs used to offer them as snacks, free to customers who were spending their “carling groat”.

The carling custom, first 
recorded in the eighteenth century, was widespread in the north of England, including the east coast from the Humber to the Scottish borders. Today the custom survives mainly on Tyneside, where carlings are available from some supermarkets.

Passion Sunday, and the following Care Week, is a solemn time for Christians who are contemplating the approaching death of Jesus. “Care” in this sense means sorrow and grief; both it and carling are said to come from the same root word. In the areas where carlings were eaten, “carlin” was a dialect word for an old woman.

St Patrick

March 17 is the feast day of Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Although he died around 461 we still have his autobiography, the first 
authenticated writing from our islands’ ancient church. It reveals a sincere and caring individual, who never forgot the trials of his early life.

Patrick was born in a Romano-British town somewhere between the Severn and the Clyde. His settled early life was not to last: raiding pirates kidnapped young Patrick, and took him to what is now Northern Ireland.

There he was sold into slavery and forced to work as a shepherd, out in the hills in all weathers. By his own confession, he hadn’t paid much attention to the Christian message while at home, but in his enforced solitude Patrick found solace in prayer.

After six years he escaped, and eventually made his way home. But he didn’t stay there – after training as a priest he returned to Ireland as a missionary. Always a popular saint, Patrick’s feast day is still celebrated enthusiastically, though probably not in ways he would have chosen.