Apr 232014


Today is the feast of Saint George (Greek: Γεώργιος (Georgios), Classical Syriac: ܓܝܘܪܓܝܣ (Giwargis), Latin: Georgius) He was born in Lydda in Roman Palestine some time between 275 and 281, and was a soldier in the Roman army. He was later venerated as a Christian martyr. His father was Gerontius, a Greek Christian from Cappadocia, and an official in the Roman army. His mother, Polychronia was a local Greek Christian of Palestine. George became an officer in the Roman army in the Guard of Diocletian. In hagiography, Saint George is one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic (Western and Eastern Rites), Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and the Oriental Orthodox churches. He is immortalized in the tale of Saint George and the Dragon, and is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

Saint George has numerous patronages around the world, including: Georgia, England, Egypt, Bulgaria, Aragon, Catalonia, Romania, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Russia and Syria, as well as the cities of Genoa, Amersfoort, Beirut, Drobeta Turnu-Severin,  Fakiha, Bteghrine, Cáceres, Ferrara, Freiburg im Breisgau, Kragujevac, Kumanovo, Ljubljana, Pérouges, Pomorie, Preston, Qormi, Rio de Janeiro, Lydda, Lviv, Barcelona, Moscow, and Victoria, and of the Scout Movement and a wide range of professions, organizations and disease sufferers.


Along with all ancient saints’ lives there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the actual facts of his life. The following is usually accepted by church historians as reasonably accurate. You’d do well to take it with a grain of salt. George’s family were Greek nobles who were faithful Christians, so he was raised Christian. His father, Gerontios, was a Greek from Cappadocia, an officer in the Roman army; and his mother, Polychronia, was a Greek native of Lydda. They decided to call him Georgios, a stock name meaning “worker of the land” (i.e., farmer). At the age of fourteen, George lost his father; a few years later, George’s mother, Polychronia, died. When his mother died George decided to go to Nicomedia, the imperial city of that time, and present himself to Emperor Diocletian to apply for a career as a soldier. Diocletian welcomed him with open arms, as he had known his father personally and considered him one of his finest soldiers. By his late 20s, George was promoted to the rank of tribune and stationed as an imperial guard of the emperor at Nicomedia.

In the year  302, Diocletian (influenced by Galerius) issued an edict that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time. However, George objected, and approached the emperor. Diocletian was upset, not wanting to lose his best tribune and the son of one of his best officials. But George loudly renounced the Emperor’s edict, and in front of his fellow soldiers and tribunes he claimed himself to be a Christian and declared his worship of Jesus. Diocletian attempted to convert George, even offering gifts of land, money and slaves if he made a sacrifice to the Roman gods. George refused them all.

Recognizing the futility of his efforts and insisting on upholding his edict, Diocletian was left with no choice but to have George executed for his refusal. Before the execution George gave his wealth to the poor and prepared himself. After various torture sessions, including laceration on a wheel of swords in which he was resuscitated three times, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia’s city wall, on 23 April 303. A witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians as well, and so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honor him as a martyr.


George’s most famous exploit, his slaying of the dragon, is undoubtedly apocryphal unless dragons existed in the 4th century that I am unaware of. In tamer versions of the story the dragon is a crocodile. The original story was brought back to Europe by the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances belonging to the genre of Romance (courtly knight rescuing a damsel in distress). The earliest known depiction of the legend is from early 11th-century Cappadocia (in the iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church, George had been depicted as a soldier since at least the seventh century); the earliest known surviving narrative text is an eleventh-century Georgian text.

In the fully developed Western version, which was part of the Golden Legend, a dragon or crocodile makes its nest at the spring that provides water for the city of “Silene” (perhaps modern Cyrene in Libya or the city of Lydda in the Holy Land, depending on the source). Consequently, the citizens have to dislodge the dragon from its nest for a time, to collect water. To do so, each day they offer the dragon at first a sheep, and if no sheep can be found, then a maiden is the best substitute for one. The victim is chosen by drawing lots. One day, this happens to be the princess. The monarch begs for her life to be spared, but to no avail. She is offered to the dragon, but then Saint George appears on his travels. He faces the dragon, protects himself with the sign of the Cross, slays the dragon, and rescues the princess. The citizens abandon their ancestral paganism and convert to Christianity.


Depictions of Saint George slaying a dragon often contain the image of the young maiden who looks on from a distance. The standard iconographic interpretation of the image icon is that the dragon represents both Satan (Rev. 12:9) and the monster from his life story. The young maiden is the wife of Diocletian, Alexandra. Thus the image, as interpreted through the language of medieval iconography, is a reference to the martyrdom of the saint.

Saint George’s patronages are so vast it would be impossible to cover them all. St George’s Day is celebrated in various ways in numerous countries. St George is the patron saint of England, and the national flag is a St George’s cross, a red cross on a white background. When I was a teenager living in England you almost never saw an English flag, nor paid any attention to St George’s day. It was probably the FIFA World Cup that brought the English flag to the fore because the nations of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), compete individually. Thus, fans of the English team use the St George cross instead of the internationally more familiar Union Jack which represents the U.K. as a whole.


There have also been lame attempts to make St George’s Day a national day in England akin to St Patrick’s or St Andrew’s. In truth, none of these national saints’ days was much of a deal until ex-pats used them in their adopted countries as symbolic of national pride. The oldest and biggest St Patrick’s Day parade, for example, is the one in New York. The one in Dublin is a later copy. So now you can buy St George’s Day cards to send, and there are parades in some towns – usually featuring scouts since he is their patron (my copy of Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys has a chapter on honor and chivalry with a prominent image of George and the Dragon). But, from what my friends tell me, it’s really all very low key as it should be.

Nonetheless I can still use the day to trumpet the glories of English cooking once more. This time I want to turn my attention to kidneys. Most of my friends in the U.S. turn up their noses at kidneys (not quite as high as when I mention tripe, but almost). But kidneys have been a solid part of English cuisine for centuries. They were especially prominent in Victorian cuisine where deviled kidneys, or fried kidneys were a standard on the breakfast buffet. What is more, it was not just ox kidneys that were popular. Lambs’ kidneys were much favored too. My association with kidneys goes back to my childhood. Steak and kidney pudding was a beloved meal for me – sadly, most often the soggy kind from cans. But as a student I was addicted to the steak and kidney pies, homemade at my two favorite pubs: the Garibaldi in Burnham (Bucks) where I went to grammar school, and the Wharf House in St Ebbes in Oxford, when I was in college.

Since those days, kidneys have been ever present in my culinary life. I’ll make a steak and kidney pudding or pie at the drop of a hat; kidneys form a part of my “full English” breakfast when I can get them; kidneys in gravy with mashed potatoes are an eternal bond between me and the (former) love of my life; and now kidneys are an essential ingredient when I have an asado (Argentine mixed BBQ). I have made ox kidneys, lambs’ kidneys, pigs’ kidneys – even rabbit kidneys – each with a slightly different taste. I’ve also experimented with new ideas.  Here’s an image of a steak and kidney empanada I made at Christmas time 2 years ago, served with leeks, mashed potato, and gravy (extra kidneys on the side).


Here is an unusual recipe I culled from Isabella Beeton the other day. It is her version of Toad in the Hole which is a famous English dish normally made nowadays with sausages. It consists of an egg batter base which is topped with meat and then baked until golden. If you make it with sausages you should brown them first but not cook them through. You can find my video for making the batter here, if need be: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0Bx9zQ-sRgAkQMEpmZkVZLUJsR1U/edit?pli=1

The main trick is to mix the flour and cold water to a paste first, and then add the eggs one at a time. This video is part of a series on making a classic Argentine tortilla, but the batter recipe is the same for making Toad in the Hole, and also for English pancakes and Yorkshire pudding.  It rises naturally without any baking powder, although it will collapse somewhat when removed from the heat.

Mrs Beeton does not specify the type of kidneys, but I presume she means lamb (or possibly sheep’s) kidneys. Her recipe is one of her “using up” recipes, that is, dealing with leftovers. One hour seems a trifle long to me to bake the dish. I’d suggest no more than 40 minutes in an oven set at 350°F/175°C. I’d also check regularly and remove the dish once the batter has risen and nicely browned.

TOAD-IN-THE-HOLE (Cold Meat Cookery).

743. INGREDIENTS.—6 oz. of flour, 1 pint of milk, 3 eggs, butter, a few slices of cold mutton, pepper and salt to taste, 2 kidneys.

Mode.—Make a smooth batter of flour, milk, and eggs in the above proportion; butter a baking-dish, and pour in the batter. Into this place a few slices of cold mutton, previously well seasoned, and the kidneys, which should be cut into rather small pieces; bake about 1 hour, or rather longer, and send it to table in the dish it was baked in. Oysters or mushrooms may be substituted for the kidneys, and will be found exceedingly good.

Time.—Rather more than 1 hour.

Average cost, exclusive of the cold meat, 8d.