In some English-speaking countries in the Northern Hemisphere, August 1 is Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “loaf-mass”), the festival marking the beginning of the wheat harvest. On this day it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the first fruits of the new crop. The loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it might be employed afterwards to work magic. A book of Anglo-Saxon charms directed that the Lammas bread be broken into four bits, which were to be placed at the four corners of the barn, to protect the garnered grain. In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of August. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called “the feast of first fruits.” The blessing of first fruits was performed annually in both the Eastern and Western Churches on the first or the sixth of August (the latter being the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ). It is possible that the English custom of Lammas is a descendent of a pre-Christian Celtic tradition, one of which is the Irish celebration of Lughnasadh.
In Irish mythology, the Lughnasadh festival is said to have been founded by the god Lugh (modern spelling: Lú) as a funeral feast and sporting competition (Áenach Tailteann) in commemoration of his foster-mother, Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. The first location of the Áenach Tailteann gathering was purportedly at Tailtin, between Navan and Kells in Co. Meath, about 25 miles northwest of Dublin. Historically, the Áenach Tailteann was a time for contests of strength and skill, and a favored time for contracting marriages. The festival survived as the Taillten Fair, and was revived for a period in the 20th century as the Telltown Games.
It’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (sorry!) when it comes to the history of British harvest festivals, and British folk customs in general. So many people have a romanticized sentimental view of them. In The Festival of Lughnasa: a study of Lughnasadh Máire MacNeill draws on medieval writings and on surveys and studies from throughout Ireland and Britain. Her conclusion was that the evidence testified to an ancient Celtic festival on 1 August that involved the following:
A solemn cutting of the first of the corn of which an offering would be made to the deity by bringing it up to a high place and burying it; a meal of the new food and of bilberries of which everyone must partake; a sacrifice of a sacred bull, a feast of its flesh, with some ceremony involving its hide, and its replacement by a young bull; a ritual dance-play perhaps telling of a struggle for a goddess and a ritual fight; an installation of a head on top of the hill and a triumphing over it by an actor impersonating Lugh; another play representing the confinement by Lugh of the monster blight or famine; a three-day celebration presided over by the brilliant young god or his human representative. Finally, a ceremony indicating that the interregnum was over, and the chief god in his right place again.
I don’t really know what to make of such conclusions. It’s so easy to conflate disparate sources into one gigantic mish-mash of things that actually took place in different regions in different eras. Why, for example, would a harvest festival involve the sacrifice of a bull? In many cultures that I know of worldwide, and historically, ritual animal sacrifice and the celebration of the harvest are quite distinct – the symbolism and meaning of each being worlds apart. Chances are this description represents different traditions in different parts of Ireland all lumped together.
What I have no trouble imagining is that harvest time was a cause for celebration throughout Britain stretching back into antiquity. Having fresh grain from which to bake bread and brew beer was, and is, something to be happy about. In the days before industrialization when 80% of the population lived in farming areas, seasonal agricultural festivals would have dominated the annual cycle of life. Nowadays with so few people involved in agriculture, and with agriculture largely under the control of massive factory farms, the importance of these festivals has faded. But we should still try to keep in touch with the yearly cycle even if we work in climate controlled, fluorescent lit offices pushing paper.
Obviously we need a bread recipe for today. I’m not much of a baker and, besides, I live in a country where bread is baked fresh twice daily at the local panaderías. In my little corner of Buenos Aires (san Telmo) there is a panadería on every block, all doing a roaring business because they supply local restaurants and markets, as well as selling directly to the public. A common sight every morning is the bread delivery boy riding the streets with a special bicycle (pictured) laden with fresh bread. Incidentally, in Argentina the pannier (lit: bread carrier) is called a miriñaque which is also the word for a woman’s crinoline.
I’ve always loved the classic English cottage loaf. Because of its odd shape I always tear off the topknot, and cut both top and bottom into wedges, usually to eat with soup. This loaf can be made with wholemeal or plain flour and, because it is baked in the traditional cottage loaf shape, you will not need a loaf tin but just a baking sheet.
½ oz (15 g) fresh yeast or 1 ½ tsp (7.5 ml) dried
½pint (300 ml) warm fresh milk
1 lb (450 g) malted brown flour, strong wholemeal flour, or strong white flour
1 tsp (5 ml) salt
beaten egg, to glaze
Dissolve the fresh yeast in the milk. If using dried yeast, sprinkle it into the milk and leave in a warm place for 15 minutes, until frothy.
Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre, then pour in the yeast liquid. Beat well together until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl clean.
Turn the dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Place in a clean lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean tea-towel and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size. It is proofed perfectly when you press in with your thumb and it springs back gently in a few seconds.
Turn the dough on to a floured surface and knead lightly. Cut off one-third of the dough and shape into a round. Shape the remaining dough into a round. Place the larger round on to a greased baking sheet and brush with a little water. Place the smaller round on top.
Push the lightly floured handle of a wooden spoon down through the centre of the loaf right to the bottom. Using a sharp knife, slash the dough at 2 inch (5 cm) intervals around the top and bottom edges to make a decorative pattern. Cover and leave in a warm place for about 30 minutes, until doubled in size.
Brush with a little beaten egg to glaze. Bake at 450°F (230°C) for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 400°F (200°C) and bake for a further 20-25 minutes, or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Yield: 1 loaf