Fish and chips is one of the nation’s favourite meals. But for many Mancunians, it’s actually the dollop of thick green mushy peas that completes – or even makes – the dish. No wonder some people call it Manchester caviar.
In a 2014 national survey by YouGov, it was revealed that just over a third of UK fish and chip eaters (37%) have mushy peas with their meal. However, in Manchester that figure jumped dramatically to two thirds (66%).
The result was similar last year, when a survey for National Fish & Chip Day asked the nation about their preferred accompaniment. In Manchester, mushy peas was by far the favourite.
Marrowfat peas, which are used to make mushy peas, are green mature peas that have been allowed to dry out naturally in the field, rather than be harvested whilst still young like the normal garden pea.
The name ‘marrowfat pea’ is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1733 – though mushy peas probably didn’t start making a regular appearance on chippy menus until the 1970s.
A local variation is parched peas, made from the purple podded pea which is soaked overnight and simmered to produce a type of mushy pea. Also known as black peas or maple peas, this delicacy is popular in Rochdale, Oldham, Bury and Bolton and is traditionally sold on or around Bonfire Night.
Mushy peas are good for you. They’re full of protein with essential nutrients including iron, zinc, potassium and fibre. Rich in vitamins and low in calories, they are almost a super food. Almost.
And they’ve got their celebrity fans. David Beckham asked for them to be included in his 42nd birthday tea. On the Jonathan Ross Show earlier this year, American actor Jack Black declared his love for the delicacy he’d discovered while in England, saying “You’ve got those mushy peas, we don’t have those in the States, we have just regular peas. It’s just a magical country.”
Mushy peas even have their own day. International Mushy Pea Day on Friday 9th November is an opportunity to turn the spotlight locally, nationally and internationally on the best side dish in the world – and 20,000 portions of delicious mushy peas will be given free to schools across the UK.
“The quest is to bring the mushy pea to the forefront of people’s consciousness; to praise our peas for all their history, taste, versatility and nutritional values,” said Pete Fraser, founder of Harbour Lights restaurant in Falmouth, who launched the initiative.
“Fun is ultimately the name of the game but the fact that, according to the Food Foundation and the ‘Peas Please’ campaign, people in the UK aren’t getting enough vegetables in their diets actually makes it quite a serious and current topic. In light of this, we’re promoting these little green superheroes.”
Not everyone’s a fan of mushy peas, of course, and some people are just baffled by them. One of the most famous stories told about Peter Mandelson involved him walking into a chip shop in Hartlepool, pointing at the mushy peas and asking for some ‘avocado dip’.
And an American intern who spent her summer in the UK a few years back was horrified by the green stuff: “Though fish and chips are a perfect pairing, the smushed peas that come with this dish are absolutely disgusting and horribly unappetising,” she wrote.
“If I want my peas mushy, I will chew them. I don’t need something like that on my plate.”
But Mancunians won’t be surprised to see mushy peas appear on menus across the city – and not just in the local chippy.
“At The Victorian Chop Houses we serve the best of British food, and naturally we feature marrowfat mushy peas with our Albert’s special bitter-battered Scottish haddock – a classic British dish that sits on our menu year round,” says Lee Ferguson, executive chef of The Albert Square Chop House, Mr Thomas’s Chop House, and Sam’s Chop House.
“Although on any given day, our customers request extra mushy peas with all kinds of meals,” he adds. “Including steak.”
Requesting extra mushy peas isn’t that surprising given their popularity amongst locals, but the amount we get through annually is still staggering.
“Victorian Chop House Company customers consume six tonnes of marrowfat peas a year,” reveals Lee.
‘Manchester caviar’ is the accompaniment to the Manchester Three Rivers gin-battered fish or halloumi at independent restaurant 1761, as well as being served with all their pies.
“For me this menu is all about Manchester as a place,” said the Salford chef who launched the 1761 menu late last year. “I want to create dishes which are industrially inspired, using great local suppliers, while bringing back some traditional home comforts such as good old Manchester caviar.”
Last year, The New Cake and Sandwich Shop in Hyde stuffed a pie in a barm and topped it with mushy peas, naming it the ‘pie face’. It was hailed as the ‘most Manchester sandwich ever.’
Crazy Pedro’s recently used mushy peas as the base of their monthly special ‘chippy tea’ pizza, which consisted a pizza topped with of chip shop chips, succulent sausage and curry sauce on a vivid green mushy pea base.
And Manchester meets Mumbai at Bundobust, the Indian street food and craft beer restaurant, who created raghda pethis. Here, a spicy mushy pea and potato cake is topped with turmeric noodles, tomato, onion and tamarind chutney in this innovative creation which fuses the northern delicacy with rich curry flavours.
Experimenting with mushy peas is nothing new, of course. Who remembers when Heston Blumenthal brought mushy pea sorbet to the city in 2007 for the Manchester International Festival?
Manchester has always been at the forefront of innovation. Even when it comes to mushy peas.