The annual hop harvest once employed entire families, including my own ancestors from London as well as hundreds of Romany and travelling families from across the country who would migrate en masse into Kent for the entire picking season. For the children, like my mum at the time, it was a summer holiday, for the older generations, especially my grandmothers and older aunts it was a working holiday where they would spend their days picking the hops from the coarse vines into bushels to be measured. Their wages would depend on the ‘measure’ and by the end of the day their hands would often be sore and cut to shreds. My mum always tells me stories from her hopping holidays where they stayed in the most basic of ‘hopper’s huts’, slept on straw filled mattresses and ate around open fires accompanied by a real sense of community and fun. The picking of hops became mechanised in the 1960s and sadly the days of hoppin’ holidays became a thing of the past.
The hop harvest is however still an important seasonal landmark in Kent usually celebrated with Beer festivals and such like. Prior to the arrival of Hops into England in the 15th Century, Britain drank mostly Ale (made with Malt and herbs used to flavour). Hops arrived into Kent first (my home town of Maidstone in fact) and it is here where they tended to stay with over 6000 acres of land devoted to hop vines just in East Kent alone. Whilst many of the hop farms have now disappeared, remnants of Kent’s lustrous hoppin’ history remain such as the abundance of Oast Houses, most of which have been converted into homes and of course the famous Shepherd Neame brewery, the oldest brewery in the country which still produces some of the best Beers on the market (but then I’m biased!).
Most folks who practise the craft observe the main harvest festivals of grain, fruit and meat. For me however the hop harvest is just as important as I expect the grape harvest must be in wine making areas of France and the Mediterranean.
Acknowledgement of the Hop Harvest is a simple affair. First order of business is to indulge in my own Hop harvest. There are places where hops now grow wild in many parts of Kent. Where the hop farms once were, many of the perennial vines survived and at this time of year beautiful lime green coloured hops (which are the female flowers of the plant) can be seen hanging from fences, hedgerows and so on. A good few ‘hop bines’ are gathered with thanks and left to dry, their characteristic bitter beer-ish perfume filling the kitchen. They will be used to decorate home and altar and later used in magic and healing.
I also make traditional Oast Cakes, a once quick and simple snack to fill a hungry hopper’s tummy and are similar to the drop scone only heavier and more dense.
First combine flour and salt and rub in lard (you can use butter if you prefer). Stir in the currants and mix to a stiff dough with the water and beer. Heat a little oil and butter in a deep heavy frying pan (you want a good 1cm depth of oil). Pick off a golf ball sized piece of dough and flatten into a thin patty. Repeat for the remaining dough and fry the cakes until golden brown on both sides. Drain slightly and toss in sugar (which you can flavour with spices too) like doughnuts and eat hot with a pint!
If you are considering making these a word of warning, these cakes are practical food, designed to be made quickly with the most basic of ingredients to fill a stomach and provide energy and sustenance, they are therefore not fancy in appearance or flavour but can be made that much more enjoyable with jams, jellies and, as we recently discovered, maple syrup!!
I take an Oast Cakes, a bottle of local beer and a small hop wreath or posy to the Hop Pickers Memorial in St Mary’s Church Hadlow there to give thanks for the sacrifice of the people who tirelessly worked to keep us in Beer….and of course to the land of Kent for providing the means! The memorial on this particular day was bathed in sunlight and shadow, just enough to highlight the 30 names of those hoppers, mostly Romany families who died. The small hop vine planted before the memorial rambles over the stone plinth, and a gentle breeze almost seems to sigh through the churchyard yews as if the spirits were awakening to my momentary remembrance and thanks giving.
As with all aspects of The Craft there has to be some deeper significance, as I have stressed many times over, it is not a fertility cult. Hop picking is in my blood, and hops are central to the history and success of my home land of Kent and whilst the hop bine isn’t a traditional symbol for the ‘God of The Vine’ in the same way grapes / wine might be, for those of us in Kent it’s an equally valid and important one. The Hop is a perennial, so each year the same vine grows, flowers and gives of its gifts, Fermenting and brewing ales was once the only way to make water palatable and safe to drink, Ales made with malt alone however only had a limited life span and easily spoiled, hops however not only flavoured beer but helped increase the life.
The Hop is life…long life, it sustains and preserves. The Hop is resurrection, hope. As I poured Beer…brewed just 20 minutes away over the grave of 30 hoppers I could sense a hint of autumn in the air, I watched as light and shadow danced over the memorial and the hop vine, planted in tribute rambling over and entangling the stone. The holy sacrament took on new meaning, a new poignancy…it spoke directly to this land, its people and its history.
High time I had a go at brewing my own beer…