Monday, 20 June 2011
Many of our traditions predate Christianity and go back to the days when we farmed the woodland margins. During the summer, there was plenty to eat. During the winter, crops were scarce and your animals were down to the breeding stock, so you resorted to hunting and gathering for our midwinter fare. For meat, we would catch boar and assorted wildfowl. We would also gather nuts and winter fruit such as hawthorn (haws), blackthorn (sloes) and wild rose (hips). That’s the origin of “Here we go gathering nuts and may.”
Winter fruit is nourishing, but tough. It generally went in the pot and stewed in front of the fire for days on end. You chucked in some stale bread and the hard fat from the animals you’d caught and you finished up with a sticky pudding which kept you going through the winter.
The English were immigrants from Germany. Out in Saxony, the weather became extremely cold for a couple of weeks after the winter solstice and survival was difficult. The solution was to gather in a roundhouse with a huge fire in the middle and eat and drink as much of the winter fare as possible. For the next couple of weeks, you’d sleep it off, nibbling at left-overs if the overindulgence of the solstice wore off. Does any of this sound familiar? The air in the roundhouse became foul, but they found they could improve matters if they brought in evergreen branches like fir, holly, ivy and mistletoe to sweeten the air. You also had the option of chucking them on the fire if the log supply ran out. These rituals were brought to these islands by the Saxons and later purloined by Christianity.
Years later, we had the crusades. Many English knights joined the wars in the Middle East (not much changes). One of the foods they discovered there were samosas – spiced meat or vegetables wrapped in pastry. When they returned, their cooks tried to reproduce what they described and mince pies were the result. Some were filled with meat and some with the sticky winter pudding. For some reason we’ve abandoned the meat version but still refer to the filling as mincemeat.
Even later, we got a taste for dried grapes. These are not a particularly winter fruit, but they keep for months so they are available all the year round. Sultanas are dried white grapes, raisins are dried black grapes and currants are from miniature Greek grapes known in French as raisins de Corinthe. These were far more appetising than hips and haws so we substituted them in our Christmas puddings and mince pies. Christmas cake was another combination of much the same ingredients.