Nottingham, October 2016: Goose Fair rides and one of the many mushy pea stalls by Nottingham, England

Nottingham and Mushy Peas

The recipe that captures the spirit of Nottingham people best is Mushy Peas with Mint Sauce, a recipe long associated with Nottingham’s famous Goose Fair.

Nottingham Goose Fair in literature

Goose Fair is an annual event which has happened in the city early every October since the Middle Ages. Novelist Geoffrey Trease describes how the term “Goose Fair” dated from 1542 in King Henry VIII’s reign. It was not always about selling geese but also featured “immense cheeses brought in by the farmers”. In 1766 these were rolled down the city's Wheeler Gate, knocking over the Mayor, leading to a riot in which one would-be cheese preserver was killed. Goose Fair has been written about by many Nottingham writers, both in its original central location on Market Square and, since 1928, in its home on the Forest, a vast area of open public parkland within the city limits.

D.H. Lawrence begins his short story “Goose Fair” in the city centre with a disconsolate country girl who “strode down to the Poultry with eleven sound geese, and one lame one to sell”. Over the last two hundred years the fair has become less of a market and more of a huge funfair – the biggest of its kind in Europe – with rides and attractions that have included early films known as phantascope entertainments, Professor England’s performing fleas, Mouse Town, Wild Beast shows and even, in 1931, an embalmed whale. In a 1980s ghost story, David Belbin describes a “long line of freak shows: giant men, snake ladies and deformed animals. They looked like they’d been transported from the last century.” Playwright and social commentator J. B. Priestley, observing Nottingham folk at the fair in the 1930s during his English Journey, notes that “the only fairings they could buy there were little plates or peas or winkles, portions of ice cream or packets of brandy snap”. In his stroll around Goose Fair on its opening day, novelist Alan Sillitoe encounters “a group of pretty girls with paper dishes of mushy peas and mint sauce”, while for Nottingham-born poets Rosie Garner and Kathy Pimlott the fair is central to their identity:

I am all of these: china saucers of acetic
mushy peas, pomegranate pips eased
out with pins, bows on arrows, bouncing
fairy dolls and cocks on sticks. (Pimlott)

Hot peas

“Hot peas, smoking hot!” was a common pedlar’s cry in the Market Square during the Victorian period according to Richard Iliffe and Wilfred Baguely. Hot portions of mushy peas and mint sauce have been sold at the fair for centuries. They are also on the menus of fish-and-chip shops citywide. Many use their own recipes. They have featured in local cookery books and remain a very popular choice of snack at our main indoor market in the city centre. For over 60 years “The ‘Hot Pea’ Man”, Eric Dickinson, ran a market stall, first in the Central Market and then in the Victoria Centre Fish Market. Children would queue for a treat of mushy peas at the end of Saturday shopping with Mum. Eric even provided wooden crates for children to stand on so they could reach his counters. Only one other English city shares this devotion to the mushy pea: Norwich, which happens to be England’s other UNESCO City of Literature, where a stall has run on the market since 1949. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the contribution that mushy peas have made to English literature.

In 2016 the mushy pea mantle has been taken up again. Local chef Claire Fisher realised that the city had a yearning for its missing mushy peas and seized on the opportunity to open a new market stall. She loves the idea that she is “following on in a great tradition” and is amazed both by the peas’ popularity and the regular flow of visitors from all over the world who want to experience or recreate a Nottingham food memory for themselves. Regulars drop by every day for their bowl of peas. Australian visitors especially complain that they cannot get proper mushy peas at home – only tinned varieties. On her stall Claire sells mushy peas she has soaked overnight and cooked up fresh each day, together with packs of marrowfat-dried peas for people to prepare at home. These come with a tablet of bicarbonate of soda. Claire says that this addition perks up the the peas by softening their skins and adding “extra mushiness”.

Written by Sue Dymoke