Oct 312017
 

Today is generally taken to be the birthday (1795) of John Keats, one of the great English Romantic poets. There’s a little confusion about the actual day because his family celebrated his birthday on the 29th but the baptismal register records his date of birth as the 31st, and this is generally accepted as the correct date. I will too. Keats holds a very special place for me because my form master in South Australia made me learn To Autumn by heart when I was 11 so that I could stand and recite it on command when special visitors, such as school inspectors, visited the classroom. My voice had not yet broken, so I had a clear treble with a strong English accent. I was also quite content to show off. My teacher, Mr Summerton, who was a complete pig, not only made me recite the poem endlessly, he also made a tape recording of me – very special for 1962. I remember marveling at hearing the sound of my own voice for the first time. I’ll give the pig credit for that, and for a lifetime’s pleasure with the ode. Just last year I had the immense satisfaction of spending many hours exploring the poem with my students. I think they understood its power by the time I was done with my rhapsodic lectures – who knows?

I’ll explore a little bit of Keats’s biography, but you’ll have to do most of that for yourself if you are interested. Then I’ll rhapsodize a bit more about his words before my recipe of the day. Keats was born in Moorgate in London. He was the eldest of four surviving children; his younger siblings were George (1797–1841), Thomas (1799–1818), and Frances Mary “Fanny” (1803–1889) who eventually married Spanish author Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez. His father first worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn, an establishment he later managed, and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats believed that he was born at the inn, but there is no evidence to support his belief. The Globe pub now occupies the site. He was baptized at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, and sent to a local dame school as a child.

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke’s school in Enfield, close to his grandparents’ house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools. In the family atmosphere at Clarke’s, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissance literature, including Tasso, Spenser, and Chapman’s translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, “always in extremes”, given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.

In April 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died from a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school. Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell, to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke’s school to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbor and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813. Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as “the most placid time in Keats’s life.”

From 1814, Keats had two bequests, held in trust for him until his 21st birthday: £800 willed by his grandfather John Jennings (about £50,000 in today’s money) and a portion of his mother’s legacy, £8000 (about £500,000 today), to be equally divided between her living children. It seems he was not told of either, since he never applied for any of the money. Historically, blame has often been laid on Abbey as legal guardian, but he may also have been unaware. William Walton, solicitor for Keats’s mother and grandmother, definitely did know and had a duty of care to relay the information to Keats. It seems he did not. The money would have made a critical difference to Keats’s expectations. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.

Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion, that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine; it brought greater responsibility and a heavier workload. Keats’s long and expensive medical training with Hammond and at Guy’s Hospital led his family to assume he would pursue a lifelong career in medicine, assuring financial security, and it seems that at this point Keats had a genuine desire to become a doctor. He lodged near the hospital, at 28 St Thomas’s Street in Southwark, with other medical students, including Henry Stephens who became a famous inventor and ink magnate. He did eventually complete his training. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s license, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.

 

You can worry about the struggles he had with money, career, ambitions, and poetry on your own if you want. I’ll just focus on 1819, his annus mirabilis, sometimes called the year of 6 odes, which was to cement his reputation as a poet, although not substantially until after his death in 1821. He died thinking that his poetry would soon be forgotten, even though he had achieved some fame, his critics were decidedly mixed in their opinions of his work during his lifetime.  Keats wrote the first five odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring at his home, Wentworth Place near Hampstead Heath, and he composed “To Autumn” in September after an autumnal evening walk near Winchester. The first five are considered now to have a kind of thematic unity, and contain some immortally memorable lines:

“Beauty is truth—truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Grecian Urn)

“To Autumn” shifts the emphasis of the first five from spring to autumn and, hence, from budding life to death. Keats perhaps knew he was dying (he died one year later), and the poem speaks to the need not to dwell on the sorrows of the end of life. Look at the lines that begin the 3rd stanza:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–

Endings are as splendid as beginnings. What did I know about this stuff when I learnt the poem at age 11? Absolutely nothing. But last year when I tried to teach the poem to Italian students the images resonated much more with me. At 66 I am in the autumn of my life and it is a very satisfying time for me. I love the autumn of the year the best of all seasons, and I love the autumn of my life. Everything planted in the spring is ripe and ready to harvest. Here’s the full poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The consciously archaic and arcane vocabulary was a bit much for my Italian students, and, I confess, is a bit much for me as well. Do you know how long it takes to explain what “thatch-eves” are to non-native speakers? That’s all right for me, but the “thy’s” and “thou’s” grate a little. At least I got to explain that English used to have an informal second person singular.

Before his doctor insisted on a Spartan diet, Keats was quite the glutton. Here’s an excerpt he wrote to Mrs Wylie, his brother’s mother-in-law, from Inverness on August 6th 1818, when he was on a walking tour of Scotland:

I have got wet through, day after day—eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky—walked up to my knees in Bog—got a sore throat—gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened—went up Ben Nevis, and—N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.

This is one of the earliest references to sandwiches in English, and possibly the first to roast beef sandwiches (one word “roastbeef” is correct for the time). Thinking in terms of 12 or 24 at one go boggles the mind. Thinking about roast beef sandwiches is making me hungry as I type. I used to eat roast beef sandwiches with English mustard when I was a boy – following my father’s lead – but when I was at Oxford I was having a pub lunch one day, asked for a roast beef sandwich, and the landlord said, “mustard or horseradish?” I’d never heard of eating beef with horseradish, and told him so. He opined that everyone of good taste ate horseradish on roast beef sandwiches, so I agreed to try, and the rest is history. As far as I am concerned roast beef and horseradish are the Castor and Pollux of the sandwich world.

English sandwiches tend to be a bit slender, certainly in comparison with their New York deli counterparts.  First roast beef sandwich I had in a deli on the upper West Side had more beef on it than my family ever had between the 5 of us for Sunday dinner. Somewhere in between the two extremes is more my speed these days. I like to roast the beef quite rare, but well caramelized on the outside, refrigerate what’s left from dinner, and slice it thin the next day. Pile the beef on freshly baked bread slathered with prepared horseradish and have at it. I don’t like extras such as lettuce, tomatoes, or cucumber. Bread, beef and horseradish is superb on its own. I like a nice hearty, crusty bread, but a crusty roll will do at a pinch.

Apr 242017
 

Today is the eve of the feast of St Mark. You’ll find my post on the feast day here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-mark/  The eve of church feasts were often fasting days (esp. Christmas Eve and Easter Eve), and in the case of many saints’ days the eve was a time of prognostication. The eve of St Agnes, for example, was the time for girls to peek into the future to see who their husbands would be (immortalized by John Keats http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-agnes/ ), but the eve of St Mark in England was much darker. I’ll get into that in a second. Let me take a moment beforehand to talk about the word “eve” because people get confused by it sometimes.

The word “eve” is a shortened form of “even” in Middle English, and in the early 13th century it was more or less synonymous with the modern “evening” (which is actually an older word, going back to Old English, and with similar etymology).  By the late 13th century “eve” and “evening” had generally parted ways, with “evening” mostly having the modern meaning, and “eve” being reserved for “the day before” (and also, “on the brink of”). The thing is that the eve of a feast is the whole day before, not just the evening before. Saying something like, “Christmas Eve day” is redundant. Nevertheless it is the actual evening of the eve of a feast that tends to be important, especially for prognostication.

Various sources will tell you that it was the custom in villages in England, from the 17th century to the late 19th century, to sit in the church porch on St. Mark’s Eve. According these sources you had to keep silent between the bell tolling at 11.00 p.m. until the bell struck 1.00 a.m. (some sources say that you had to do this 3 years in a row). The belief was that the ghosts of those to die in the parish in the coming year would be seen passing into the church. I’m always skeptical concerning how widespread such “traditional” customs were because most of them are reported by 19th century antiquaries who were not very careful about their source material, and often made wild, unsupported generalizations. The latter habit is, unfortunately, still with us, and many social historians fall prey to it. There are scattered reports of the custom throughout England, but most come from northern and western counties (notably Yorkshire). Typical 19th century accounts go into detail about supposedly true tales of people seeing ghosts following this custom, and then, lo and behold, the people seen as ghosts entering the church died in the year to come. You don’t get a lot of stories of people keeping vigil and NOTHING HAPPENED.

Some accounts of the custom state that the watchers must be fasting, or must circle the church before taking up position. The ghosts of those who were to die soon would be the first observed, while those who would almost see out the year would not be witnessed until almost 1.00 a.m. Other variations of the superstition say that the watchers would see headless or rotting corpses, or coffins approaching.

Another, much less documented, tradition holds that a young woman can see the face of her future husband appear on her smock by holding it before the fire on St Mark’s Eve.

In February 1819 Keats began writing “The Eve of St Mark.” 1819 was quite a year for Keats. He wrote his 6 most famous odes that year, including my personal favorite: “To Autumn.” It was also the year that he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes.” In many ways 1819 was the year when Keats sealed his fame in perpetuity; he had really only been a recognized poet for a couple of years at that point. He spent the year with a deep sense of foreboding that he would die within 3 years, which proved to be entirely accurate. He died of tuberculosis in Rome in February 1821 at the age of 25. “The Eve of St Mark” is one of his lesser known poems, mostly because he never finished it. It seems to have been inspired by the idea of sitting up late in the churchyard on St Mark’s Eve although this custom is not specifically referred to in the poem. Instead it tells of a woman, Bertha, sitting up late, reading about St Mark. It is filled with gloomy images but because it is not finished, there’s really no sense of where he was going with it. I’ve appended the existing fragment after today’s recipe.

The Eve of St Mark is also a 1942 play by Maxwell Anderson set during World War II. It later became a 1944 film by 20th Century Fox that featured some of the same actors who reprised their stage roles in the film. I’m not entirely sure what relationship there is between the title and the play’s plot. There is a strong mystical element of love and death that conjures up the old customs, and Keats’ imagery.

The central character of the play/movie is Quizz West who joins the United States Army in late 1940 before the US enters the war. Prior to being shipped out first to San Francisco, then the Philippines, Quizz and his hometown girlfriend Janet discuss their future plans. When the US enters the war, Quizz and his friends are in the Philippines where they man a coastal artillery gun against overwhelming odds. When things become desperate Quizz communicates with his mother and Janet through dreams, where he asks them whether he and his friends should stay with their gun to sacrifice themselves by covering the withdrawing US troops or leave by boat for a chance of survival. The movie version is here. I won’t spoil it for you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtBZq9hvQ-Y

It’s a real period piece, although, unlike many contemporary war movies it does not glorify war.  You’ll also recognize Vincent Price and Michael O’Shea if your hair is grey enough.

Given that St Mark’s Eve churchyard customs are best attested in Yorkshire, a Yorkshire recipe is in order. Of course you can make Yorkshire pudding, or chomp down on some Wensleydale cheese, but you might find Yorkshire curd tart a bit more enjoyable and unusual. The rosewater is what makes it. You might be able to buy curds for the tart, but making them yourself is not a problem. Make them the night before.

Put 2½ pints/ 1.2L of whole milk in a large non-reactive saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until it almost comes to a boil. Add the juice of one lemon, and gently stir over very low heat.  The curds will start to form. Do not stir too quickly or you will break up the curds. When the curds and whey are visibly distinct, remove from the heat and let the curds cool in the whey. Place the cooled curds and whey in a large sieve lined with muslin or a double layer of cheese cloth over a bowl, and let the curds drain overnight. Save the whey for making scones.

If you are lazy, like me, you can use a prepared tart shell. For some reason I can make pasta from scratch with no effort, but balk at making pastry. It’s your St Mark’s Eve mystery to figure out why. The pastry recipe I give here is a traditional one for the tart.

 

Yorkshire Curd Tart

Ingredients

Pastry

4½ oz/125 gm plain flour
½ oz/12 gm finely ground almonds
4½ oz/125 gm butter
1½ oz/42 gm powdered sugar
½ tbsp grated lemon rind
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp milk

Filling

6 oz/150 gm curd
1 egg
2 oz/62 gm  caster sugar
1 oz/30 gm currants
½ tbsp grated lemon rind
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp grated fresh nutmeg
1 tbsp  rosewater
½ oz/12g melted butter

Instructions

First make the pastry. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl or a food processor, and add the ground almonds.  Add the butter and either pulse it in the processor to make a mixture resembling coarse sand, or rub in the butter with your fingertips.  Sift in the icing sugar, add grated lemon rind and mix everything together. Dump out on to a rolling board.  Punch down the center of the flour mix. Lightly beat the egg yolk and milk together and pour them into the center of the dry ingredients.  Fold the dry ingredients gently into the wet ones with your hands until the mass just comes together. Knead gently to make a smooth dough.  Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Lightly butter a 9”/22cm shallow tart tin.  Roll out the pastry thinly on a lightly floured surface and line the tin with it.  Prick the base with a fork several times and rest in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 395˚F/200˚C.  Bake the pastry blind for 10 minutes.  Remove the baking beans and paper, turn down the oven to 355˚F/180˚C (160˚C fan oven) and return the tart to the oven for another 4-5 minutes to fully cook the base.

To make the filling, mix the curd with the currants, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon rind and rosewater.  Beat the egg with the sugar then add to the curd mixture along with the cooled melted butter.  Pour into the pastry case and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and the filling set.

The Eve of St. Mark

John Keats

Upon a sabbath day it fell,
Twice holy was the sabbath bell
That call’d the folk to evening prayer—
The City streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains
And on the western window panes
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of unmatur’d green vallies cold,
Of the green thorny bloomless hedge,
Of rivers new with springtide sedge,
Of primroses by shelter’d rills
And daisies on the aguish hills—

Twice holy was the sabbath bell:
The silent Streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies
Warm from their fire-side orat’ries
And moving with demurest air
To even song and vesper prayer.
Each arched porch and entry low
Was fill’d with patient folk and slow,
With whispers hush, and shuffling feet
While play’d the organ loud and sweet—

The Bells had ceas’d, the prayers begun
And Bertha had not yet half done:
A curious volume patch’d and torn,
That all day long from earliest morn
Had taken captive her two eyes
Among its golden broideries—
Perplex’d her with a thousand things—
The Stars of heaven and angels’ wings,
Martyrs in a fiery blaze—
Azure saints in silver rays,
Moses’ breastplate, and the seven
Candlesticks John saw in heaven—
The winged Lion of St. Mark
And the covenantal Ark
With its many mysteries,
Cherubim and golden Mice.

 Bertha was a maiden fair
Dwelling in the old Minster-square;
From her fireside she could see
Sidelong its rich antiquity—
Far as the Bishop’s garden wall
Where Sycamores and elm trees tall
Full-leav’d the forest had outstript—
By no sharp north wind ever nipt
So shelter’d by the mighty pile—
Bertha arose and read awhile
With forehead ‘gainst the window-pane—
Again she tried and then again
Until the dusk eve left her dark
Upon the Legend of St. Mark.
From plaited lawn-frill, fine and thin
She lifted up her soft warm chin,
With aching neck and swimming eyes
And daz’d with saintly imageries.

All was gloom, and silent all,
Save now and then the still footfall
Of one returning townwards late—
Past the echoing minster gate—
The clamorous daws that all the day
Above tree tops and towers play
Pair by pair had gone to rest,
Each in its ancient belfry nest
Where asleep they fall betimes
To musick of the drowsy chimes,
All was silent—all was gloom
Abroad and in the homely room—
Down she sat, poor cheated soul
And struck a Lamp from the dismal coal,
Leaned forward, with bright drooping hair
And slant book full against the glare.
Her shadow in uneasy guise
hover’d about a giant size
On ceilingbeam and old oak chair,
The Parrot’s cage and panel square
And the warm angled winter screen
On which were many monsters seen
Call’d Doves of Siam, Lima Mice
And legless birds of Paradise,
Macaw, and tender av’davat
And silken-furr’d angora cat—
Untir’d she read; her shadow still
Glower’d about as it would fill
The room with wildest forms and shades,
As though some ghostly Queen of spades
Had come to mock behind her back—
And dance, and ruffle her garments black.
Untir’d she read the Legend page
Of holy Mark from youth to age,
On Land, on Seas, in pagan-chains,
Rejoicing for his many pains—
Sometimes the learned Eremite
With golden star, or dagger bright
Referr’d to pious poesies
Written in smallest crowquill size
Beneath the text; and thus the rhyme
Was parcell’d out from time to time:
—’Als writith he of swevenis
Men han beforne they wake in bliss,
Whanne that hir friendes thinke hem bound
In crimped shroude farre under grounde;
And how a litling child mote be
A saint er its nativitie,
Gif that the modre (god her blesse)
Kepen in solitarinesse,
And kissen devoute the holy croce.
Of Goddis love and Sathan’s force
He writith; and thinges many mo:
Of swiche thinges I may not shew;.
Bot I must tellen verilie
Somdel of Saintè Cicilie;
And chieftie what he auctorethe
Of Saintè Markis life and dethe.’

At length her constant eyelids come
Upon the fervent Martyrdom;
Then lastly to his holy shrine
Exalt amid the tapers’ shine
At Venice—

 

 

Sep 222016
 

se1

Today is the September equinox this year (2016). The September equinox (or Southward equinox) is the moment when the Sun appears to cross the celestial equator, heading southward (it’s the earth that is moving – not the sun !!). Due to differences between the calendar year and the tropical year, the September equinox can occur at any time from the 21st to the 24th day of September, so this day counts as a movable feast (sort of). At the equinox, the Sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west. As the Southward equinox approaches, the Sun rises and sets less and less to the north, and afterwards, it rises and sets more and more to the south. Technically the equinox is the precise moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator, but for practical purposes we call the day when this occurs the equinox. It is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere and the vernal equinox in the southern.

In the northern hemisphere the autumnal equinox is nowhere near as big of a deal as the vernal equinox is. The northern vernal equinox is associated with Passover, Easter, Spring and all of that. The autumnal equinox is loosely associated with harvest festivals in northern Europe, especially Britain, but these are tied more to the full moon in September (the Harvest Moon) than to the equinox per se. The equinox is merely a convenient way of dating the moon as being in September, and has no other significance.

se3

Like most British calendar customs, we know about harvest festivals mostly from the 19th century when they were on their last legs. A play by Thomas Nashe, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, (first published in London in 1600 but believed from internal evidence to have been first performed in October 1592 in Croydon) contains a scene which demonstrates features of a harvest festival that were known down to the 19th century. There is a character personifying harvest who comes on stage attended by men dressed as reapers. He refers to himself as their “master” and ends the scene by begging the audience for a “largesse”. The scene is probably inspired by contemporary harvest celebrations, with singing and drinking prominent. The stage instruction reads:

“Enter Haruest with a sythe on his neck, & all his reapers with siccles, and a great black bowle with a posset in it borne before him: they come in singing.”

Harvest celebrations in the 19th century followed pretty much the same course through rural England. Often the last load brought in from the fields was just a token load and the cart was decorated with ribbons and such, with all the reapers on board. They rode into town and then celebrated with a fair amount of beer. The traditional English song John Barleycorn is a common harvest song, here sung by Steeleye Span:

There are hundreds of versions. I know the song well, partly because my essay on its variants and an analysis of its history was what got me into a Ph.D. program in anthropology. The song is a simple allegory about the growing of barley is if it were a man who is buried (sown), resurrected (sprouts), killed (harvested), and then drowned (brewed into beer). I conjectured back when I was a young folklore student, and still believe, that the story was once a Medieval riddle that was made into a broadside ballad and then passed into oral tradition as a song.

The Southward equinox was New Year’s Day in the French Republican Calendar, which was in use from 1793 to 1805. The French First Republic was proclaimed and the French monarchy was abolished on September 21, 1792, making the following day (the equinox day that year) the first day of the Republican Era in France. The start of every year was to be determined by astronomical calculations following the real Sun and not the mean Sun as in the Gregorian Calendar. So if you are inclined towards old French Republicanism – Happy New Year.

se4

This is Keats’s season:

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

se5

So you need to be thinking of grapes, apples, pumpkins, honey and so forth. You know the drill. I’ve just baked an apple crumble for starters. The crumble reminds me a little of shortbread which was a favorite in my family for many years. It was one of the few things my wife knew how to cook. It came to the Appalachians via the so-called Scotch-Irish (Irish Protestants) and she called it Scotch bread. To me it’s a good memory of autumns past. Here’s Mrs Beeton for a good, old-fashioned recipe that still works fine:

se2

SCOTCH SHORTBREAD.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 lbs. of flour, 1 lb. of butter, 1/4 lb. of pounded loaf sugar, 1/2 oz. of caraway seeds, 1 oz. of sweet almonds, a few strips of candied orange-peel.

Mode.—Beat the butter to a cream, gradually dredge in the flour, and add the sugar, caraway seeds, and sweet almonds, which should be blanched and cut into small pieces. Work the paste until it is quite smooth, and divide it into six pieces. Put each cake on a separate piece of paper, roll the paste out square to the thickness of about an inch, and pinch it upon all sides. Prick it well, and ornament with one or two strips of candied orange-peel. Put the cakes into a good oven, and bake them from 25 to 30 minutes.

Time.—25 to 30 minutes.

Average cost, for this quantity, 2s.

Sufficient to make 6 cakes.

Seasonable at any time.

Note.—Where the flavour of the caraway seeds is disliked, omit them, and add rather a larger proportion of candied peel.

You can divide the recipe by 4 and make one large shortbread or follow the proportions in general. You can also omit the peel, caraway, and almonds. Plain is just fine.

Jan 212014
 

agnes

Today is the feast of Agnes of Rome (c. 291 – c. 304) a virgin–martyr, also known simply as St Agnes or St Ines. She is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins. Agnes is depicted in art with a lamb, as her name resembles the Latin word for “lamb,” agnus. The name “Agnes” is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective “hagn?” (ἁγνή) meaning “chaste, pure, or sacred.”

According to tradition, Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility born c. 291 and raised in a Christian family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, on 21 January 304. As with all early saints there are a great many fabulous stories surrounding her martyrdom, but the nugget that lies at the heart appears to be that being from a noble family, she was courted by a great many men who were not Christians.  She refused them all and so she was reported to the emperor as a Christian.  Diocletian held one of the most brutal series of purges of Christians during imperial times, so this seems entirely plausible.  An early account of Agnes’ death, stressing her steadfastness and virginity, but not the legendary features of the tradition, is given by Saint Ambrose.

Her bones are said to be interred under the altar of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, a basilica built over ancient catacombs in Rome (which can still be visited).

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It is customary on her feast day for two lambs to be brought from the Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome to be blessed by the Pope. On Holy Thursday they are shorn, and from the wool is woven the pallium which the pope gives to a newly consecrated metropolitan archbishop as a sign of his jurisdiction and his union with the pope

In popular tradition the feast of St Agnes is a lot less important than the eve of the feast (i.e. Jan 20th), which is a day/night of prognostication for unmarried women to perform certain rituals which, if done correctly, allow the women to dream of their future husbands.  In one version, a girl could see her future husband in a dream if on the eve of St. Agnes she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

A Scottish version of the ritual involved young women meeting together on St. Agnes’ Eve at midnight, they would go one by one, into a remote field and throw in some grain, after which they repeated the following rhyme in a prayer to St. Agnes:

“ Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, Hither, hither, now repair; Bonny Agnes, let me see The lad who is to marry me. ”

John Keats used these traditions as the basis for his poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a long poem that is rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, although with a less tragic end.  Madeline, the heroine, is the member of a warlike family, sworn enemy to the family of Porphyro, the man she loves.  On the eve of St Agnes Madeline’s kin become involved in a long drinking session while Madeline pines for the love of Porphyro. The old women of the household have told her she may receive sweet dreams of love from him if on this night, St. Agnes’ Eve, she retires to bed under the proper ritual of silence and receptiveness.

Porphyro makes his way to the castle and braves entry, seeking out Angela, an elderly woman friendly to his family, and persuades her to lead him to Madeline’s room at night where he may gaze upon her sleeping form. Angela is persuaded only with difficulty, saying she fears damnation if Porphyro does not afterward marry the girl.

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Concealed in an ornately carved closet in Madeline’s room, Porphyro watches as Madeline makes ready for bed, and then, beholding her full beauty in the moonlight, creeps forth to prepare for her a feast of rare delicacies. Madeline wakes and sees before her the same image she has seen in her dream, and thinking Porphyro part of it, receives him into her bed. Awakening in full and realizing her mistake, she tells Porphyro she cannot hate him for his deception since her heart is so much in his.

Porphyro declares his love for Madeline and promises her a home with him over the southern moors. They escape the castle past drunken revelers, and flee into the night.

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I admit that the bald story is not much, you have to read the poem.  But for your food treat for the day, this is what Porphyro prepared for his love:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,            
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,      
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;                      
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,        
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;             
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d              
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,         
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.