What Are Black Peas?

Lakshmi Sandhana

Black peas are a type of hard brown peas that rose to popularity in the time of Elizabeth I in England. Thought to have originated in the monastic gardens in the Middle Ages, these peas are known by many colorful names, such as brown peas, maple peas, and pigeon peas. Also known as carlin peas, grey badgers, and black badgers, these peas were a staple in the diets of people in those times and may have been around as early as the 1300s. They were used to feed pigeons but are now classified as an heirloom or heritage variety. These peas can still be grown from seed today, and their cultivation is similar to that of sweet peas — the plants can grow to a height of approximately six feet (almost two meters) with enough sunlight and water can deliver an abundant crop that can either be used fresh or allowed to dry for winter use.

Black peas are often seasoned with salt and pepper.
Black peas are often seasoned with salt and pepper.

Well known in the northern part of England, the peas have an interesting legend around them. In 1644, the city of Newcastle was under siege by the Scottish army, which hoped to conquer the city and gain the advantage of its coal supplies. Newcastle proved steadfast though, and the soldiers cut off the city's food supplies in an attempt to starve the people into submission. When things looked really bleak, a Dutch ship laden with dried black peas evaded the blockade and reached the port on Passion Sunday, thus saving the day. From then on, the tradition of serving these brown peas on Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, now known as Carlin Sunday, began.

Typically prepared by soaking them overnight and boiling for a few hours, these black peas are served hot with a little salt and pepper and a dash of vinegar. Some prefer to fry them in butter with a little brown sugar and rum or serve them with some vegetables. Salt is not added during the cooking process because it stops the peas from softening. They are at times eaten as a snack when roasted in beef drippings, and some recipes call for cooking them with a shank of ham. Normally eaten mushy, black peas can be eaten either hot or cold and are found in the bars of many pubs in the Northeast of England on Carlin Sunday.

Eating black peas in this way has since spread to Lancashire, Yorkshire, and other areas of England. Though this tradition petered out in the 1950s, they can still be found in a few pubs. They are eaten in the northwest parts of England during Bonfire Night and can be found at a few winter fairs. Children may be served hot carlin peas in a little plastic cup on Carlin Sunday at the end of a church service. There's even a saying, originating from the psalms and hymns connected with Lent that helps people to remember the order of the days, which goes, "Tid, Mid, Miseray, Carlin, Palm, Pace-Egg Day."

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