Jan 082019
 

Today (the day after Plough Monday) was the day when the Whittlesea Straw Bear came out for his annual dance. The festival of the Straw Bear or “Strawbower” is a nineteenth century custom known only from a small area of Fenland on the borders of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, including Ramsey Mereside. Whittlesey (modern spelling) is in the Fens in northern Cambridgeshire. A man covered completely in an outfit made of straw, accompanied by a keeper who led him around on a chain, and a musician, pranced around the streets — the keeper rattling a collecting box. The custom died out around 1909 because the local police inspector regarded it as basic begging with little merit. It was revived in rather different form in 1980. Now the Straw Bear is the centerpiece of a weekend long folk festival and has little resemblance to the original custom. Here is an old description of the original custom and the music used:

https://soundcloud.com/strawbearmusic/straw-bear-festival-rattlebone

The festival has now expanded to cover the whole weekend when the Bear appears (not Plough Tuesday nowadays, but the second weekend in January instead). On the Saturday of the festival, the Bear processes around the streets with its attendant “keeper” and musicians, followed by numerous dance sides (mostly visitors), including morris men and women, molly dancers, rapper and longsword dancers, clog dancers and others, who perform at various points along the route. This is from 2016:

East Anglia has a number of suet puddings to its name, and I am fond of all of them, especially at this time of year if I am in northern Europe. I’ll give you the traditional nineteenth-century version of pork fillet pudding from Cambridgeshire. In Victorian times, cooks made boiled suet puddings by lining a pudding cloth (unbleached muslin) with suet pastry, adding a filing, then drawing up the pastry to make a package, then pulling together the cloth to make a bundle. They then simmered the bundle directly in boiling water. I have done this, but I prefer to line a pudding basin with a double layer of cheesecloth overlapping the sides, line it with suet pastry, add the filling, put on a pastry top, then fold over the excess cheesecloth, and tie the top of the pudding basin with a lid of greaseproof paper. Then steam the pudding in a steamer with the basin clear of the boiling water. This way the suet crust does not get all soggy. So . . .

Take a lump of suet pastry and roll it our to form a 12” square. Place the pastry over a slightly larger pudding cloth and place a pork fillet in the middle. Peel and finely chop and onion and gently sauté it in a little butter until it is soft. Add a generous amount of dried sage and sauté a little longer until the sage is aromatic. Spread the sage and onion mix over the pork, draw up the corners of the pastry to form a package, and tie the pudding cloth around the pudding in a well sealed bundle. Place in simmering water, and simmer, covered for about 4 hours. Check the water level periodically and top up with boiling water from a kettle if the level gets low.