The time of abundance is upon us once again. Certainly in my own humble plot I have been rewarded for my hard work and worry with plenty. Onions both red and white, Garlic, Potatoes, Beetroot and Carrots among the vegetables as well as a good crop of Lavender, Angelica, Lovage, Calendula, Mugwort, Wormwood, Vervain and St Johns Wort among the herbs. The first harvest has always been one of my favourite times of year, it holds special significance for me especially as Lammas was one of my first seasonal observances many moons ago.
With all this wonderful bounty I seem to spend much of the latter days of summer either in the garden or the kitchen. Root vegetables, French Beans and Beetroot tops are blanched and frozen, Onions and Garlic bulbs dry in the sun, Herbs are gathered and hang by the bushel from the beams of the summer house.
Beetroot has been a first in my garden this year having failed miserably last year, it seems this stunning red root is only really happy growing in the ground. Last year I tried growing it in window boxes and got nothing. From one extreme to the other, this year I have more than plenty. Beetroot is special; it is a root vegetable and so carries associations and a connection to the lower regions, the dark hidden places of the earth and the Ancestors. Not only that it bleeds, producing the most glorious scarlet, red and deep crimson hues when boiled and pickled. Some of my Beets have been pickled, others simply blanched and frozen although I discovered they are also wonderful roasted. Earlier this year I was given a recipe for Beetroot cake and now seems a good time to give it ago and make use of the glut!
There is a magic associated with this cake. As I said Beetroot has a connection to the underworld being a root vegetable and it is also red. A cake baked with this special root therefore is ideal for use in the Red Meal, a special sacrament dedicated to the spirits of the dead, for it is said that the dead thrive on red food…the colour of blood. You could bake this cake for All Hallows, but the Red Meal can and should be shared in loving communion with the spirits of the mighty dead anytime, an ancestor is for life…not just for All Hallows!
Begin by cleaning and blanching Beets in boiling water for about 5 minutes. Plunge into cold water to stop further cooking and rub away the skin, revealing the crimson flesh beneath. You will need 150g of grated Beetroot for this recipe.
Take a good pinch of your grated beetroot into a small dish and add a few teaspoons of boiling water. The crimson water will be used later to pigment the icing.
Preheat the oven to 190oC and prepare two 20cm Sandwich tins with butter around the insides and greaseproof paper on the bottom. Set these to one side.
In a bowl whisk together 200ml of groundnut or sunflower oil with 250g sugar, beat in 3 egg yolks (reserve the whites for later), 100g of roasted chopped Hazelnuts (associated with wisdom…The Hazelnut was the food of the Salmon of Wisdom!) and the grated beetroot.
In another bowl weigh out 200g flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, ½ teaspoon each of ground Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Ginger. Sift this into the wet ingredients and combine.
Whisk your egg whites into stiff peaks and gradually fold into the cake mix with a metal spoon. Do not beat or whisk to retain as much air as possible!
Divide the mixture evenly between your two sandwich tins and bake for 35-40 minutes on the middle shelf. The cakes are ready when they feel spongy to the touch and a knife tip, when inserted and withdrawn, comes out clean.
Turn the cakes onto a wire rack and leave to cool completely.
Make the icing by beating 180g unsalted butter with 150g icing sugar and 500g cream cheese. Gradually add the Beetroot water from above until you achieve a nice pale pink – scarlet colour. Sandwich a layer of the icing between the two cakes and then cover the whole thing with another, more generous layer. Chill for an hour before serving upon the altar of the dead with a glass of red wine.
This cake freezes pretty well but fresh beetroot freezes better so get a good crop frozen and you can make this cake all year round for sharing with the shades of the underworld.
I have a 2 year old Angelica (Archangelica officianalis) plant out front which had gotten a little big for its roots so I gave it a good prune. I had a hella lotta stems and I always remember my Nan was rather fond of sweets containing crystallised Angelica, Ginger or Violet flowers which I thought would be perfect to give this rather olde worlde treat a go. Traditionally Angelica should be cut on the Feast Day of Michael or Michaelmas day (29th September) being sacred to this mighty of Archangels, (I’ll remember that for next year) although Mrs Grieve in her ‘Modern Herbal’ specifies cutting stems in June or July. Medicinally Angelica is good for the digestion and warding off colds, fevers and such but its main use is culinary being added to cakes and liqueurs.
The Angelica Stems should be green and I found the best thickness is a stem which will slip onto your middle or ring finger easily. The stems should be cut into pieces, traditionally 6” or so however as I was only experimenting I cut smaller pieces about 2-3”. The stem pieces are then blanched for 5 minutes or so until tender. Plunge the stems into cold water to cease cooking and peel the green waxy coating away…it’s a little like peeling celery and admittedly quite time consuming.
In a small pan boil together 1 cup sugar with 1 cup of water. Toss in your pieces of Angelica stem and boil in the syrup for 5-10 minutes. Pour everything into a heat proof bowl and leave over night.
The next day strain off the syrup and boil just the syrup again at around 110oC until it thickens. Pour over the angelica stems and leave overnight.
Repeat the above process the day after.
On the forth day strain the pieces of Angelica a final time discarding the syrup. Roll each piece in sugar until well coated and place on a rack to dry and harden.
Once dry and solid, the Angelica can be stored in an airtight container and, it is supposed, will keep for up to 2 years.
The taste is herby and earthy, a little like sweetened Juniper berries, almost gin like without the alcoholic kick. I will probably add pieces to this years Christmas cake and mincemeat and maybe the Rumtopf.
Despite the constant deluge of rain since march we have in Kent been blessed with a good cherry crop. Jam and jelly making is one of my favourite methods of preserving fruit. I was taught to make jam at a young age by my father’s sister when I used to spend my summer holidays with her in the weald, she gave me my paternal Grandmother’s recipe book and in the front is a scrap of paper with a recipe for Strawberry jam written in her handwriting. This scrappy bit of paper is one of my most beloved possessions and the only recipe I use for jam, regardless of the fruit.
A general rule of thumb is equal weight of fruit to sugar. So in this case I had 10oz of cherries by the time they were stoned. I simmer these in a pan with a splash of water until soft and add 10oz sugar and the juice of a lemon. Lemon juice is a source of pectin which helps Jams and Jellies set. Some fruits such as apples have naturally high levels of pectin and don’t need any extra help, the best thing is to try without and see what happens…it will ALWAYS taste good no matter what the consistency! (I can virtually hear the Women’s Institute screaming with horror as I write this!)
Then it’s just a case of boiling the heck out of the jam until it ‘sets’. You can test for a good set by placing a small plate in the fridge for 30 minutes. Drop a little jam on the saucer and if it wrinkles when you push it with a fingertip its set and you can pour into clean sterile jars.
Lammastide would not be complete without Bread but I plan to write another blog shortly exclusively dedicated to this most sacred of foodstuffs! Bread of course is made with flour and flour comes from Wheat. To honour the spirit of the fields which sustain us all I like to make traditional corn dollies around this time of year….in fact Lammas wouldn’t be Lammas without a little wheat or corn weaving under the sunshine!
Normally I make what are called Countryman’s Favours which are a simple braid of three grain stalks pulled into a loop. These were traditionally worn by country men upon their lapels or as button holes. Love Knots are a similar design and were given to women by men, if the woman wore the token it was a sign of acceptance and the couple would be officially courting….much more romantic than changing one’s relationship status on facebook I think!! <sigh>
This year I embarked on a more daring challenge. There are men and women out there who are master weavers of corn and wheat and some of the dollies they create are just stunning works of art. So this year I eventually found some good instructions after much ‘Googling’ and gave it a go.
First attempt not bad, second attempt was a little better. The idea is that these Corn Dollies are made from the last sheaf to be cut and form a ‘cage’ in which the spirit of the fields, John Barleycorn in some counties or the Corn Maiden in others, is captured. They are then released back into the fields at Candlemas when the corn dolly is either burnt or buried in the field at the time next years crop are sown.
Almost every county in Great Britian has their own traditional Corn Dolly such as the Cornish Neck, the Norfolk drop or closer to home, the Ivy Maid of Kent. A little too advanced for me just yet…maybe next year!
Whatever, whenever and how ever you plan to honour the first harvest, may you be blessed with abundance and good fortune!