AT RISK – Carling/Carlin/Carl/Care Sunday

In his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), E. Cobham Brewer provides the following definition for Carle or Carling Sunday [Pea Sunday]: ‘The octave preceding Palm Sunday; so called because the special food of the day was carling—i.e. peas fried in butter’. Earlier, Robinson’s Whitby Glossary (1875) had pointed out that, ‘Caring or carl are gray steeped in water and fried the next day in butter or fat. They are eaten on the day formerly called Carl Sunday’.

The Sunday the two authors mention corresponds to the fifth in Lent (the second before Easter) and the tradition is confined to the north of England and the south of Scotland, where the peas they speak of are variously referred to as parched peas (north Lancashire), pigeon peas, grey peas, carlins or carlings (Northumberland, Durham, North Yorkshire), carlins (Cumbria and southern Scotland).

The pulse at the heart of the matter is more properly known as the black pea, Cajanus cajan. In my recollection, as a child in Carlisle, Cumbria, in the extreme north-west of England, we were treated to gooey, unctuous carlin soup exclusively on the Sunday in question (‘Carling-Palm-Pasche Egg Day’ was how we kids scanned the sequence of Sundays leading up to Easter). The city pubs used to serve free bowls of carlins for the occasion, but that, of course, was a privilege for grown-ups only. I can’t say I was especially enamored of the pulse soup, probably because my young mind inevitably made associations between the fact that ‘carlin’ was also the local dialect word for sheep’s droppings. I’ve always appreciated the stuff more as an adult.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first mention we have of this particular species of pea dates from 1562, when, in his Herbal Turner spoke of ’the perched or bursted peasen which are called in Northumbria Carlines’. In Yorkshire, legend has it that the story began when a ship loaded with a cargo of black peas (which, after all, were originally a tropical crop and are still grown from West Africa to the West Indies) was shipwrecked off the coast during a storm. Apparently the peas were washed up onto the beach and collected and feasted upon by the locals. This may, however, be no more than the stuff of folk tale, since, as the distinguished food historian Peter Brears points out in his Traditional Food in Yorkshire (1987), the pulses have always been relatively common inland, too. The ship reference does, however, explain one theory for the etymology of the word ‘carling’; namely, that it derives from an ancient technical term for part of the structure of a seagoing vessel.

The habit of eating carlins during Lent is believed to derive from the pagan tradition of using beans to commemorate the dead and the ancient Roman association of beans with funerals. Carlin Sunday, in fact, corresponds to Passion Sunday, which remembers the death of Jesus. In Hints for the Table (1859), Brand writes that, ‘In the old Roman calendar so often cited, I find it observed on this day, that “a dole is made of soft Beans”. It was usual amongst the Romanists to give beans in the doles at funerals: it was also a rite in the funeral ceremonies of heathen Rome. Why we have substituted peas I know not, unless it was because they are a pulse somewhat fitter to be eaten at this season of the year. They are given away as a dole at this day. Our Popish ancestors celebrated (as it were by anticipation) the Funeral of Our Lord on this Care Sunday’.

With time, carlins evidently lost a lot of their more morbid connotations and a 1724 Scots reference recites joyfully, ‘There lads and lassies will feast on sybows [onions] and riforts [radishes] and carlings’. In some areas, the consumption of the pulses also extended beyond the period of Lent. In ‘Working Class Food and Cooking’ (1973), Eunice Schofield reports that ‘cooked peas’ eventually became regular takeaway food in many of the industrial towns of the north of England, while in Fairs, Feasts and Frolics: Customs and Traditions in Yorkshire, Julia Smith points out that they were available on the bars of pubs, salted to stimulate the thirst of punters. In his 1995 essay, ‘The Decline of Tripe’, the late Roy Shipperbottom, a Lancashire food scholar, recalls how ‘black peas’ were commonly served at local fairs, citing ‘Mrs Abbot’s Black Pea Saloon’ as a star attraction at the New Year Fair in Bolton, near Manchester.

As for cooking techniques, these black peas were prepared much the same way as any other pulse. The most classic method was to soak them in cold water overnight, then boil them into a stew or soup. In some areas, they added vinegar or even rum; in others, they drained the cooked peas and ‘parched’ them in lard seasoned with salt and pepper (and according to popular tradition, the person who fished the last pea from the pot would be the first to get married).

In Lenten Fare and Food for Fridays (1959), Constance Cruikshank cites a recipe in which the peas were soaked for 24 hours, bound in a cloth, steamed into a porridge, pushed through a sieve, mixed with salt, butter and cream, and served with boiled meat. The resulting mush must have been very similar to pease pudding, the pea purée still popular as an accompaniment to gammon in Newcastle and Northumbria.
Cruikshank also notes that ‘the tradition has been much weakened since the break in the war years’. Since she wrote those words, though carlins are still to be found in markets in Lancashire and Cumbria, in the north-east of England, alas, the custom of cooking carlins on Carlin Sunday would now appear to be extinct.

John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food website

Phot: Cajanus Cajan

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