A Cock-on-a-Stick and Mushy Peas

by Frank E Earp

In our modern multi-cultural society, the many food stalls on Nottingham’s Goose Fair now sell a wide variety of take-away meals. Walking along the road past the Pavilion at the top end of The Forest, – traditionally lined with stalls of every kind, – it is now not unusual to suddenly catch a smell of spices from the Orient, or Jamaican ‘Jerk-chicken’. Hot woks sisal away with stir-fries whilst a little further on Indian curries or Mexican fajitas are being served. It is not that long ago that the most exotic food on offer at the Fair was the British traditional ‘mushy-peas’.

How do you like your mushy-peas, perhaps the traditional way with a pinch of salt and a dash of vinegar? In parts of Yorkshire some prefer a sprinkling of sugar. There are of course still a number of stalls which still provide this delicacy, but all is not as it seems. A glance amongst the discarded rubbish of many of these stalls reveals that the use canned processed-peas. Real mushy-peas are made by carefully boiling dried peas to porridge like consistence. This results in a somewhat unappetizing grey mess and in more modern times green food colouring is added. The original mushy-peas is perhaps the oldest form of fast hot food served at the Fair and certainly compatible with a medieval origin.

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Photo Credit: Joe Earp.

There are, and always have been other exotic foods and treats associated with the Fair. Among the exotic, coco-nuts and pomegranates imported as treats and of course the seasonal favourite, the toffee-apple. Baked treats include Grantham Gingerbread and Brandy-snap biscuits. All of these are still readily available, if not proportionally less popular than they have been. However, one edible item once intrinsically associated with Goose Fair, – and as far as I am aware, nowhere else, – is now all but extinct. That item is the ‘Cock-on-a-stick’, – a boiled sugar lollypop shaped in the form of a cockerel. And yes, I am aware of all of the jokes and double entendres associated with the name; and so is everyone who has ever brought one. This is all a part of the Cock’s cheeky appeal.

I remember a time when the Cock-on-a-stick, – or at least a lesser imitation, – was sold on stalls throughout the Fair. Only one exclusive outlet now remains, that of old confectioner Ray Brooks. The history of this peculiar confectionary goes back over 100 years when Ray’s grandfather Ben Brooks, is said to have created the first brightly coloured lollypop in the form of a cockerel rather than a white goose, an item already popular at that time. This was no mere whim of Ben’s, but a clever marketing ploy prompted by the ladies of Nottingham who referred to the often misshaped goose, as ‘cocks’ (cockerels). Ben’s idea was an instant success which many of his rivals tried to imitate. Ben passed on the secrets of making Cock-on-a-stick to his grandson in 1950 and Ray has continued the family business to this day.

To get his cocks ready in time for the Fair, Ray begins manufacturing in June. First, glucose and sugar are boiled to a temperature of 200° F. and then poured whilst malleable onto a flat working surface. The resulting toffee, when cooled is then ‘pulled’ turning it white. Colour is added and the toffee is broken into pieces and laid in stripes. Ray is a skilled perfectionist and each piece is cut and shaped by hand, the flourishing touch is in shaping the bird’s tail. A stick is inserted before the toffee is finally set. The finished product resembles and rivals the fine gilt cockerels on the weathervanes on church steeples.

Every year when I visit Ray’s tiny stall, I wonder if he will still be there or if this will be the last cock-on-a stick I will buy. Ray is more than well passed retirement age and unless he finds someone who is as passionate about Goose Fair’s special treat as he is and willing to continue more than 100 years tradition, the rare bird will become extinct.

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Photo Credit: Joe Earp.

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About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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2 Responses to A Cock-on-a-Stick and Mushy Peas

  1. Marion says:

    Fabulous history. Thanks

  2. Great piece this. Sadly, I meant to get a cock on a stick – but missed it this year!

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