Jenny Mollison: Carlins are probably the original mushy pea

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I LOVE to try growing something different each year. This year’s excitement is carlin peas, which I admired growing in Sprouston Manse garden near Kelso last year. I resolved to get some seed. The plants grow tall and have gorgeous white and purple flowers. They crop prolifically.

Apparently the peas themselves are small and brown and probably the original mushy pea. They can be eaten fresh. However, some pods can be left to dry and the peas added to soups and stews in the winter. I am told they are served cold with salt and vinegar in the pubs of the north-east of England. They are sometimes called maple peas or black and grey badgers. My father, who grew up in the area, remembers them as being very good pigeon food.

There are records of them growing in monastery gardens in the Middle Ages when peas and beans formed the staple diet, but what caught my imagination was their connection with the Newcastle area. In the Civil War in 1644 Newcastle was under siege by the Scots and people on both sides of the Tyne were starving. On Passion Sunday, two weeks before Easter, a boat from France was stranded nearby at South Shields and its cargo of carlin peas was washed ashore and devoured. After that, Passion Sunday (tomorrow) was celebrated locally as Carlin Sunday and they were traditionally eaten then.

Finding some seed was far from simple as I could not see them on any familiar lists of heritage seeds. I began to feel like a latterday Miss Marple as I followed up clues to likely sources. Not for the first time, I was struck at how helpful fellow gardeners are. I began by asking Peter Horrocks at Newcastle Allotments and he put me in touch with two other north of England allotmenteers. But in the end, I have to thank a lady called Patricia in South Yorkshire who came to my rescue and sold me 50 seeds on eBay. She told me she had originally acquired the seeds from a fellow allotmenteer, having been struck by how tall and pretty they grew. She kept a few seeds back to pass on to other gardeners. They duly arrived in a little brown envelope with instructions to soak them before planting out in mid-April and a reminder to cover the emerging seedlings as they were much enjoyed by blackbirds.