Bonfire Night Black Peas

Now for something a little different: distracting myself from the world by writing about my favourite Autumnal tradition on Bonfire Night. Scroll down for the first of many collaborations with talented illustrator Emily Maud who created an incredible image of the scene based on my words.

My Mum introduced me to the autumnal Lancashire delicacy of black peas. I can remember being around 7 or 8 and it was Bonfire Night. There was a cool, crisp bite in the air and a sense of anticipation building as we huddled together in a field waiting for fireworks. I was kitted out under strict instruction to ‘wrap up warm.’ The cupboards had been raided to find hats, scarves, gloves and our ‘big coats’ to protect us from the evening chill. My cheeks were rosy as the only part of me exposed to the welcome warmer smoky air from the bonfire. By this point in my childhood, I had already developed a love for the usual treats of Bonfire Night. The prospect of treacle toffee and fireworks made it even more exciting. Hot dogs were never usually on the menu for tea, so for me, the prospect of colourful explosions in the sky and a slice of parkin thrown in for good measure meant that this was a night I had been looking forward to for ages.

Illustration by the incredibly talented Emily Maud who read my words and provided a beautiful illustration to match, capturing little me in a field on Bonfire Night trying my Black Peas for the first time surrounded by grown ups and sparklers.

This year was a little different. I was presented with a small plastic cup of steaming hot purple-brown mush. There were instructions delivered with my first taste of black peas: best enjoyed when it’s cold outside and serve with lashings of malt vinegar. I must admit, I was dubious at first. The colour was alien to me, weren’t mushy peas meant to be green? They didn’t look as though they would taste nice. The peas were swollen to the size of chickpeas and the mush or gravy made it look even less appealing. The whiff of vinegar seemed to heighten my senses but that could have just been the cracks, fizzes and whistles that were jolting me occasionally. “Go on, give them a try.” I needed the prod, black peas looked pretty unappetising to me.

They taste of collective “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” and despite being dreary in the colour stakes, they transport me to golden shimmery sparklers, bright and glittery bursts of pinks and greens in the inky blue, black sky. The modest cup of vinegary peas brings the atmosphere and tradition. It has been passed down and shared between circles of friends. It has been ridiculed and has had to be seen to be believed. Black peas are a foreign concept outside of Lancashire, they are geographically specific to towns like Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Wigan, Bolton, Heywood and even Preston. Although all born in Rochdale – one of the first industrialised towns famous for cotton spinning – our family moved to Cheshire, only 45 miles away but a world away when it comes to traditional Bonfire Night treats.

Sharing the joy of black peas is a labour of love, especially for my Mum. In early November each year, she returns to Bury Market – Britain’s favourite market 2019 – to stock up on her black peas, also known as parched or maple peas. She soaks them overnight in cold water with a pinch of baking soda. In the morning, returning to the pot and adding onion, boiling then simmering for several hours and adding salt and pepper before removing to cool. Crucially, lashings of vinegar are reserved until serving. After a while, the vat gets covered in tin foil and transferred to the back of her car. Black peas are best enjoyed outside and the tradition is shared, now with her work colleagues, who huddle outside in the November elements with their hands curled around warm cups of decanted black beans. They pass round the malt vinegar they once scoffed at with childlike glee, they know the rules now.

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