Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold,
Pease pudding in the pot, nine days old.
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot – nine days old.
This Mother Goose rhyme, first published in John Newberry’s Mother Goose’s Melody, around 1760, could easily be assumed to be whimsy, but it speaks of a real food. The pease refers to peas. During the Middle Ages and beyond, in Europe, this pudding would have been cooked in a large cauldron that continually hung over the fire. Pease pudding is a traditional British dish to this day, even available in cans, although it is not made over a fire in a huge cauldron.
The word pease may seem like an an old-timey plural version of pea, but it was actually an early English singular version of pea. The kind of peas, or legumes, used would not have been fresh, but dried, split green peas, which kept well all the year through. The dish probably started out as pease porridge, but after the pudding cloth was invented, it became a pudding, often eaten with salt pork.
Puddings, in those days, were not the creamy thickened desserts which we call pudding today. Rather, they were congealed mixtures of various ground or chopped ingredients based on suet or other binders. The pudding cloth, which was a large square of linen which could be filled with ingredients, the four corners tied together, and the whole thing lowered into a boiling cauldron, allowed puddings to be made without having animal intestines on hand. This ushered in these puddings conceived in great diversity, such as suet, liver, marrow, calf’s foot, kidney, oatmeal, spotted dick, plum duff, and many others. Such puddings were a very important part of the Medieval diet, and cooking them in this way continued into the 1800’s.
These puddings had a great advantage over the porridge or “pottage” which came before. Instead of taking up a whole pot with a pottage, a pudding version of the dish could be cooked in a bag, right alongside a piece of mutton, beef, or salted pork so that two courses were cooked together in the same pot.
For pease pudding, the dried peas were soaked overnight, then boiled and drained, before being mixed with a little seasoning, perhaps sugar and pepper. Mist was also used. When available, butter, eggs, or breadcrumbs might be added. The mixture was placed into the pudding cloth which was tied up and lowered into a cauldron of boiling water to be boiled for around an hour. If available, the resultant pudding was served with salted pork, which went particularly well with the pease pudding, since it the bacon was very salty and the pudding was hardly salted at all, creating a balance.
The rhyme suggests that pease pudding had a fairly good shelf-life, although we should probably not imagine that it was actually boiled for nine days continuously, but simply that it the leftovers, cut into slices, were served both re-heated or cold for well over a week.
Some sources suggest that the pease pudding in the rhyme referred to the porridge-like dish that is still made today, and that the word pudding was only used for alliteration. However, as explained above, although the dish began as a porridge, called pease pottage, the introduction of the pudding cloth allowed a more solid product. Modern recipes, which are called pease pudding or pease porridge, tend to yield a paste-like or sauce-like product.
The long time-span in which the food was served, described in the poem, has also been suggested to refer not to traditional pease pudding, but to an adaptation of a fermented product more like Indonesian Tempe or Japanese Miso. If the pudding were indeed kept for nine days, then micro-organisms would certainly have grown and caused fermentation, but such uncontrolled fermentation would not have resulted in an agreeable dish, but more likely a spoiled one. Unless a specific starter was maintained and used for each new batch, fermentation is probably not the reason for the long life of the dish.
The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, c. 1774, describes the procedure for making pease pudding, in the typical uninformative way of the day:
To Make a Pease-Pudding
Boil it til it is quite tender, then take it up, untie it, stir in a good piece of butter, a little salt, and a good deal of beaten pepper, then tie it up again, boil it an hour longer, and it will eat fine.
To translate: Tie the peas up in a pudding bag, and boil until the peas are tender, then take the bag out of the pot, untie the bag, and add a fairly large piece of butter, a little salt, and a good deal of ground pepper, then tie the bag up and boil again for another hour.