Feb 272017
 

Today, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, used to go by a lot of names in England at one time, but they are all pretty well defunct.  Shrove Monday is technically correct because it is the Monday in Shrovetide.  But just as tomorrow is technically Shrove Tuesday, but the English all call it Pancake Day (because you eat pancakes on that day), today – to my mind, is best known as Collop Monday, although the tradition of eating collops today has fallen away in most places – except in my house.

Formally, Shrovetide is the week before Lent, but in many parts of the world where Carnival now stretches from Epiphany to Lent (New Orleans, Buenos Aires, Rio etc.), Shrovetide covers that whole season.  There’s nothing really wrong with merging Christmas and Easter. In the Medieval church the two festivals were seen as quintessentially linked.  Many traditional (supposedly Christmas) carols actually follow the arc of the two seasons, but now they get sung at Christmas and miss out the Easter bits.  Handel’s Messiah is well known for having what people think of as the Christmas part and the Easter part. Handel was following the ages old tradition of placing the two celebrations together. If you follow the arc all the way from Advent to Pentecost you cover half the year (from the end of November to May), so, in some ways you can conceive of the winter and spring as the sacred half of the year, and summer and autumn as the secular half. I’ll unpack some of this as the Easter season progresses.

I like splitting the year in two like this.  I also like the ups and downs of the Christmas to Easter arc.  It’s not all feasts and merriment. There are feasts AND fasts, and, for my money, the fasts are as important as the feasts. Feasting after a fast is much more celebratory than simply pigging out all year, with extra blow outs once in a while.

Shrovetide is, of course, feast time because Lent is coming.  The Monday and Tuesday before Lent are typically associated with rich foods. I don’t buy the idea that people used to use up all their fats, meats, etc. before Lent in celebratory meals so that they did not go to waste, but there is plenty of evidence that the days before Lent were especially joyous – and still are.   Pancakes on Tuesday still survive, but collops on Monday did not.

The word “shrove” is the past tense of the English verb “shrive,” (past participle, “shriven”) which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of Confession and doing Penance. Early English Christians were expected to be shriven immediately before Lent began. The terms “Shrove Monday” and “Shrove Tuesday” are no longer widely used in English-speaking countries outside of high liturgical traditions, such as in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Churches.

The name Collop Monday leaves us with a bit of puzzle because what collops were when the day got its name is not clear.  A collop is a slice of meat, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the derivation is obscure. By Elizabethan times, “collops” came to refer specifically to slices of bacon. Shrove Monday was traditionally the last day to cook and eat meat before Ash Wednesday A traditional breakfast dish was collops of bacon topped with a fried egg. This could well be the beginning of eggs and bacon as a breakfast dish.

But collops are not simply slices of bacon; any cutlet could be referred to as a collop, and there are also examples in early sources of minced meat (lamb, beef, or bacon), served in thin patties being called collops. At Christ’s Hospital, founded before the reign of Elizabeth I, the word collops was used on the menu to mean stewed minced beef. Scotch collops are a traditional Scottish dish. It can be created using either thin slices or minced meat of beef, lamb or venison. This is combined with onion, salt, pepper and suet, then stewed, baked or roasted with optional flavorings according to the meat used. It is traditionally served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato. It is referred to as a meal in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped. Lamb collops were included on the breakfast menu for first class passengers of the Titanic.

In east Cornwall, today is sometimes called Peasen Monday or Paisen Monday after the custom of eating pea soup on this day.  I’m not sure why pea soup was especially recommended for Shrovetide unless it was made with bacon or ham hocks which would be forbidden in Lent. In any case, for my Collop Monday dinner I usually combine the two traditions in my own special way – pea soup followed by a slice of steak with an egg on top (plus an onion and mushroom garnish in between).  Here’s my gallery from this year with notes:

Here’s my pea soup.  I usually make it by keeping the split peas somewhat integral, rather than making a purée of the soup with a blender.  This year I had to use prosciutto for the ham part.  It worked.

Caramelize some onion

Quickly sear a thin slice of steak in a very hot pan (without fat)

This year I mixed in some wild mushrooms with the caramelized onions

Fry an agg

Serve with the egg over the steak garnished with onions

May 162016
 

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Today is  Whit Monday in Britain and the Commonwealth and Pentecost Monday in other parts of the world. It is a civic rather than a church festival. The Monday after Pentecost is a holiday in Austria, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Catalonia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, France, Germany, Greece, Grenada, Hungary, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montserrat, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Switzerland, Togo and Ukraine. In France, it became a work day for many workers from 2005 to 2007. This was to raise extra funds following the government’s lack of preparation for a summertime heat wave, which led to a shortage of proper health care for the elderly. It continues now to be a public holiday in France.

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In Liechtenstein, Whit Monday is an extremely popular holiday akin to Christmas in other countries. Until 1973, Whit Monday was a public holiday in Ireland (also called a bank holiday). It was a bank holiday in the United Kingdom until 1967. It was formally replaced by the fixed Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May in 1971. It was also a public holiday in various former British colonies, especially in the Pacific. It remains a public holiday in some of the countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean. In Sweden, Whit Monday was a public holiday until 2004 when it was replaced by the National Day of Sweden.

Nowadays countries generally dislike having public holidays that are pegged to the date of Easter and, therefore, swing about the calendar so much. Whit Monday can fall anywhere from early May to mid-June. It’s rather early this year and that means that the weather will be unpredictable in Britain. The newer Spring Bank Holiday makes things a little more fixed and predictable, but the weather is still anyone’s guess.

Germany Tradition Sorbs

Whit Monday, though tied to religious festivals, is not especially religious in itself in most parts of the world. In some Germanic Catholic regions it is, but for most people and cultures it’s just an excuse for a holiday. I’m up for that. A random day off work never hurts, especially if it extends the weekend. In England, Whit Monday used to be a day off that could be used for picnics, political rallies, outings and so forth much as Spring Bank Holiday is now. But for me the most important aspect of the day is that it used to be a chance for morris dancers to begin their dance season.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing, in large part to dispel so much rubbish talked about its history. So many people want to see it as a “survival” of ancient pre-Christian ritual because they have been drawn in by ludicrous 19th century speculations about its history based on one or two dubious sources. Morris dancing in England cannot be traced further back than the 15th century and the references from that time are sparse and unhelpful. Things get better in the 16th century, but it is the 17th through 19th centuries when the picture gets clearer. When you actually collect together ALL the extant records, as I did over a 30-year period, it is perfectly clear that morris dancing was first a royal entertainment, then got adopted by churches as part of their annual festivities, then got banned during the Reformation, and finally re-emerged during the Restoration, and later, as a rural pastime for fun and to make money.

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People want to peg morris dancing to May Day because they want to believe that it is an old pagan ritual in new guise, but the history shows that it was more common to dance on Whit Monday, not because it was a religious holiday, but because it was a day off for fun. As morris dancing died out at the end of the 19th century, dancing on Whit Monday withered also. But it did survive in the town of Bampton in Oxfordshire, and continues to this day, although shifted to Bank Holiday Monday nowadays.

Festivities in Bampton have grown significantly over the years, but the general course of the day remains the same. The Bampton dancers tour the town during the day, stopping at carefully scheduled sites. Fixed scheduling is necessary because in the 1960s the dancers fissioned into two competing teams who did not want to collide, but both wanted to share the day. Then they were known by the family names of their respective leaders (Woodley and Shergold), and each group had their followers. I was in the Shergold camp. Now there are THREE teams !!!

Bampton dancers on Whit Monday 1979 Photo © Bill Smith 28th May 1979

Photo © Bill Smith 28th May 1979

After the daytime dancing, teams from various parts of the country are invited to dance. I danced there with Oxford University Morris Men in the early 1970s. Once in a while I pop back for a visit, but it is not often, and I have not been there since the 1990s. The cast of characters does not change much. I can’t go this year, but if I attend some time in the future I’m bound to run into old friends. That’s the value of classic calendar customs. Forget the ancient, pagan nonsense. Whit Monday is a day off to have fun, and it was 200 years ago as well.

Whit Monday is not associated with particular foods. The word Whit is an abbreviation of Whitsun, from Whitsunday  and ultimately White Sunday. The general conjecture is that Whitsunday was so called because baptismal candidates and new communicants wore white, and Pentecost has historically been associated with baptism and first communion. Some people, therefore, like to prepare white foods in celebration. Well, I mentioned red foods yesterday for Pentecost, so white foods would be all right, although hardly thrilling.

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We’re talking about rice, pasta, cauliflower, coconut, and so forth. Many foods that are called “white,” such as beans, are not really white, and white foods in general can be bland. Wherever they are staples they are dressed up with a sauce or condiment. You’re not going to find me eating tofu by itself.  Generally speaking, adding “white” to any food turns me off: white bread, white cake, white pepper, white sauce. Ugh. White food even looks unappetizing to me. If you want to make a white meal to celebrate, go ahead, but don’t invite me.

Though it goes against the grain, here’s a recipe for white cake from Bolivia. It is salvaged for me by the generous addition of lemon. Vanilla would be all right too. “Vanilla” is often treated as a synonym for “bland” which is unfair. This comes about because typical commercial vanilla ice-creams are white and tasteless. True vanilla is not white and is not bland.

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Bolivian White Cake

Ingredients

Cake

1 cup flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ cup cornstarch
⅛ tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup white sugar
grated zest of ½ lemon
5 tbsp water

Icing

3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp lemon extract
3 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp hot water

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-inch-square baking pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

Place the eggs in a separate bowl, making sure that they are thoroughly beaten and frothy. Add the sugar to the eggs slowly and beat vigorously as you go. Using a stand mixer for this step is best. Add the  lemon and water to  the egg mixture and continue to beat well.

If you are using a stand mixer, remove the bowl and fold in the flour mixture, a little at a time. Do not over mix, but make sure the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. Insert one into the center of the cake after about 20 minutes and see if it comes out clean.  As soon as it does remove the cake from the oven. Let it cool for several minutes and then turn it out on a wire rake to cook completely.

Meanwhile make the icing. Beat all the icing ingredients together in a small bowl.  You can use a stand mixer but do not beat too hard.  The icing needs to be creamy, but not frothy. Spread the icing evenly along the top and sides of the cake. You can chill the cake to allow the icing to harden if you like.