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The Scrivener: When You Boyl Pulse

Brian Barratt tells of the dish pease porridge, still regularly served and eaten in northern parts of Britain.

On 1 February 2012, Open Writing showed us the entry Samuel Pepys made in his diary for the same date in 1660. It included the brief comment:

'At noon I went home and dined with my wife on pease porridge and nothing else.'

He also mentioned peas(e) porridge on 8 April 1664, as a non-meat meal taken by tradition on Good Friday, an important day in the Christian calendar.

'So home to dinner, and had an excellent Good Friday dinner of peas porridge and apple pye.'

This reminds us of the old jingle that children used to sing:

'Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.'

The full version is given in I & P Opie's 'The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes' (OUP 1951):

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in a pot
Nine days old.

Some like it hot,
Some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot
Nine days old.

It was part of a game played by children on cold days, involving a complicated routine of clapping their own hands and each other's. They repeated the song and the routine faster and faster until someone broke the sequence.

There doesn't seem to be any particular significance in 'nine days old', which was used in other nonsense rhymes but 'Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable' notes:

'"Nine days' wonder" is an old saying, something that causes a great sensation for a few days and is then forgotten.

The first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (1771) notes, of peas:

'...The species are four, only one of them, viz. the marinum, or sea-pease, a native of Britain. Peas are nutritive, and accordingly used for food; but rarely for any medicinal purposes, except to keep issues open; for which purpose they are rubbed, with basilicoa, or linimentum Arcæi.

Dr J Wecker includes in his 'Secrets of Art and Nature' (1660), some helpful hints regarding pulses (peas, beans and lentils):

'That Pulse may be easily boyled

When you sow them, mingle Saltpeter with the dung; for so you shall make them fit to boyl. If this succeeds not, and you would have your Pulse boyl suddenly, cast a little Mustard seed into the pot, and presently those that boyl will dissolve, whether you boyl flesh or Pulse. But if you cast in too much Mustard seed, they will all boyl away.'


'Some take a great deal of care more then [than?] needs, who desiring to have Chich Peason greater, they steep them with their shells before hand in Water and Niter.'

(Chich peason is an old name for chick pea)

In his 'Historie of Plants' (1597) John Gerard writes of pulse or pease being found growing in unlikely places and providing relief for the hunger of people in need. In particular, he cites a writer in 1555:

'These Pease, which by their great encrease, did such good to the poore that yeare, without doubt grew there for many yeares before, but were not observed till hunger made them take notice of them, and quickned their inventions, which commonly in our people is very dull, especially in finding out food of this nature.'

This implication that peas were perhaps food for poorer people might explain why Samuel Pepys, a lover of all kinds of meat, wrote 'pease porridge and nothing else'. He might have been disappointed.

200 years later, Mrs Beeton gives a useful recipe in her huge book of household management. Here it is, in case you would like to try it:

'Pease pudding

Ingredients — 1½ pint of split peas, 2 oz. of butter, 2 eggs, pepper and salt to taste.

Mode — Put the peas to soak over-night, in rain-water, and float off any that are wormeaten of discoloured. Tie them loosely in a clean cloth, leaving a little room for them to swell, and put them on to boil in cold rain-water, allowing 2½ hours after the water has simmered up. When the peas are tender, take them up and drain; rub them through a colander with a wooden spoon; add the butter, eggs, pepper and salt; beat all well together for a few minutes, until the ingredients are well incorporated; then tie them tightly in a floured cloth; boil the pudding for another hour, turn it on to the dish, and serve very hot. This pudding should always be sent to table with boiled leg of pork, and is an exceedingly nice accompaniment to boiled beef.'

Older variations and other recipes can be found here:


I think Mr Pepys would have heartily approved of boiled leg of pork or some slices of boiled beef with his pease porridge. And a dish of apple pye.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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