Turning Year: A special meal for Passion Sunday

Carlins, a tasty old custom. Photo by Hodmedods.
Carlins, a tasty old custom. Photo by Hodmedods.

Today is Passion Sunday, the fifth in Lent. In the north it’s also called Carlin Sunday, because this is the day to eat a special meal of brown peas, or carlins.

When the Lent fast was taken seriously it meant one meal a day that didn’t include meat, eggs, or dairy produce. Fish was allowed on certain days, but beans and peas were cheaper, so that’s what most folk ate.

So what’s special about carlins? Well, they’re peas, but not as we know them. They’re maple peas, an old variety of field pea with a nutty flavour and a texture like chickpeas.

To make carlins, the dried peas are soaked overnight, rinsed, boiled, then fried in butter and seasoned with pepper. This basic recipe was tweaked by adding chopped bacon, onions, and vinegar or a dash of rum.

Carlin Sunday survived into the twentieth century in less affluent villages and urban areas, where pubs offered salted carlins in paper cones to drinkers spending their “carlin groat”. The custom was found in Cumberland, and in the east from the Scottish borders to the Humber, but there are no mentions of it elsewhere.

How carlins became linked with Passion Sunday is a mystery. The peas appeared in Turner’s Herbal of 1562, but field peas — as opposed to garden peas that were eaten fresh — had been a staple of our diet for centuries before that.

Nevertheless, carlins are appropriate for Passion Sunday. In ancient times when pulses symbolised immortality, ritual dishes of beans were served to guests at Roman funerals. Carlin is thought to derive from care, which used to mean sorrow and grief; Passion Sunday, and Care Week that follows, is a solemn time for Christians who are contemplating the betrayal and death of Jesus.

On the other hand, carlin is a dialect word for Old Woman, the personification of winter. And there’s yet another explanation: in the 1880s a ship was wrecked off Filey, and its cargo of dried peas, now ready-soaked, was washed up on the beach. People fed them to their pigs. Then they discovered how tasty the peas were when fried in lard.

Sad to say, that’s just an old yarn. In the Geordie version, the locals are saved from famine when the storm-tossed ship is blown up the Tyne. And that’s where you’ll find carlins today — the custom, though much less widespread, hasn’t died out in the northeast.

If you’d like to cook some carlins, www.hodmedods.co.uk <http://www.hodmedods.co.uk> will supply the appropriate peas.


An evening in early spring is a good time to see earthshine, or “the old moon in the young moon’s arms”. With a new moon on March 9, look when it is two days old and you may see the ghostly moon cradled by a shining crescent.

Wait until the eighth day, and try to spot the hare-in-the-moon. Like the man-in-the-moon it appears in a large patch on the moon’s left side (imagine that the hare is sitting up).

Out in the fields real hares are looking for a mate. This is the month of the mad March hare, when jacks and jills chase and box while other hares watch. Chilly winds can’t hold back spring — just as well, with winds tending to northerly for most of the month. Better splash more rum in those carlins.