Sunday, 11 February 2018

St. Valentine's Day


The Lover's Letter Box, George Baxter

Although the custom of giving lace-edged, heart-shaped cards to sweethearts and lovers is Victorian in origin, the association of the fourteenth of February with romance goes back a lot further than that. In Roman times it was the eve of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of youth and fertility. During the festival, those taking part chose their sweethearts by way of a lottery. Stripped naked, the young men ‘chastised’ their chosen women on the bottom with goat or dog-skin whips. This was supposed to improve fertility!

While actually unconnected with the celebrations and traditions of the day, St. Valentine – who was renowned for his chastity as well as supporting love and marriage – was martyred on this same date. In about AD 197, Valentine of Terni, a Christian and Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) was, it is thought, imprisoned for his faith on the orders of a Roman called Placid Furius (yes, really!) and tortured before being beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome. Legend has it he was executed on the fourteenth of February; in all probability, however, somebody thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.

In the reign of Emperor Claudius (about AD 289) another priest called Valentine, also a Christian, seems to have been arrested for giving relief to prisoners. Sundry, improbable, stories are attached to his name, where he variously converted his jailer to Christianity by healing the sight of the man’s daughter; fell in love with the daughter and sent her a love letter ‘From your Valentine’; and, when Claudius supposedly banned marriage among young men to make them better soldiers, Valentine was purported to have continued to perform weddings, thus leading to his arrest. Valentine of Rome is also said to have died on the fourteenth of February.

Approaching two hundred years later, in about AD 496, Gelasius, the Pope of that time, ordered that 14 February was to be a Christian feast day and would be named St. Valentine’s Day. This smacks rather strongly of the later claiming of the day following All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) by the Church as All Saints’ Day somewhere around 835. Originally introduced in May, to commemorate martyrs without a particular feast day, it was moved to the first of November to counteract paganism. The last day of the Celtic calendar, the 31st October was the date when the ancient ritual of Samhain was celebrated. Samhain thus became overshadowed by All Hallows' Eve and the Church took back an edge of control. Claim a pagan rite as your own and you not only save face, you can keep the people under your thumb!

It would seem that the connection with the giving of (generally) anonymous love-tokens stems from the belief held in medieval England and France, that the beginning of the second fortnight of the second month of the year was when the birds began to mate. In 1382, Chaucer wrote, in respect of the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.’ In the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa, however, the saint’s day was the second of May – a more appropriate time for birds to mate in England. This is considered the first connection of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love, nevertheless.

By 1601, the feast day was enough of an entity for the Bard himself to have Ophelia lament, ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.’ Two hundred and fifty years later, love-notes had become popular, and in 1797 was published The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, a guide to messages and verse for the aspiring lover.

As with all such festivals, traditions and customs have become synonymous with the occasion. The Roman introduction of chance into the choosing of a partner can be seen in the custom whereby the first member of the opposite sex one sees on the fourteenth is then said to be one’s Valentine.

Another custom slowly being lost in the mists of time is that where young girls put bay leaves beneath their pillows before going to bed on St. Valentine’s Day, in the hopes of dreaming of future husbands. Other games of divination included this popular one: Name(s) of the favoured one(s) were written on slips of paper, enclosed in balls of moist clay and then dropped into a bowl of water. The first piece of paper thus named to rise to the surface would reveal the future sweetheart. Once a girl had chosen her Valentine, he was honour bound to present her with a lover’s gift.


An Illicit Letter, Vittoio Reggianini


In the Regency era, lovers of all walks of life might exchange little hand-written billets doux or poems, and gentlemen would present posies of flowers to their sweethearts. Little gifts, of ribbons, lace, a book or perhaps a favourite sweetmeat, were considered unexceptionable tokens of affection, although these were not confined to St. Valentine’s Day. That custom had begun to fade as far previously as the mid eighteenth century, although still continued in parts of Northern England. Nonetheless, as the nineteenth century progressed and postal distribution became more accessible to ordinary folk, anonymous cards were possible. Manufactories began to mass-produce tokens for St. Valentine’s Day, and the downward spiral into commercialism had begun. 

All pictures Public Domain

© Heather King

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Regency Festive Fare

Mince Pie

Are you ready for a mince pie? This perennial favourite, you may be astonished to learn (or not), was once actually made with meat. Known in England for centuries, the original combination of beef (or neat’s tongue) and dried fruit has gradually evolved into the individual fruit pies we know today. Here are two recipes from The London Art of Cookery by John Farley, 1811. The first is with meat, the second without.

TAKE a neat's tongue, and boil it two hours; then skin it, and chop it as small as possible. Chop very small three pounds of beef suet, the same quantity of good baking apples, four pounds of currants clean washed, picked, and well dried before the fire, a pound of jar raisins stoned and chopped small, and a pound of powder sugar. Mix them all together with half an ounce of mace, the same quantity of grated nutmeg, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, the same quantity of cinnamon, and a pint of French brandy. Make a rich puff paste, and as the pattypans are filled, put in a little candied citron and orange cut in little pieces. Put close down in a pot what mincemeat is left, and cover it up; but never put any citron or orange to it till wanted for use.

Or, shred three pounds of suet very fine, and chopped as small as possible. Take two pounds of raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible; two pounds of currants nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the fire; half a hundred of fine pippins pared, cored, and chopped small; half a pound of fine sugar pounded fine; a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same quantity of cloves, and two large nutmegs, all beat fine. Put all together into a great pan, and mix them well together with half a pint of brandy, and the same quantity of sack. Put it close down into a stone pan, and it will keep good for months.

Yorkshire Christmas Pie 

No Yorkshire gentleman in Georgian times would have suffered Christmas without this indulgence. It was a good way of showing prosperity. The pie was made from whatever birds were available on the estate and comprised a three to five bird roast which was then encased in pastry. A common combination was chicken, pheasant and pigeon, all of which were boned and then stuffed inside each other. Particularly in Yorkshire, this was often given as a gift.

Christmas Pie

A more elaborate version of this dish caused the great bustard to be driven to extinction in Britain by the 1840s. Great bustards were prized for their flavour and cost about two guineas each in the first years of the nineteenth century. French chef Grimod de la Reyniere included in his book of that time, L’Almanach des Gourmands, a now famous recipe incorporating the bustard. It began with an olive stuffed with capers and anchovies, which was pushed into a garden warbler. This was then put into an ortolan, followed by a lark, a thrush, a quail, a larded lapwing, a plover, a red-legged partridge, a woodcock, a teal, a guinea fowl, a duck, a fattened pullet, a pheasant, a turkey and finally the bustard, each time the whole being placed into the larger bird. The stuffed bustard was then cooked in a sealed pot with ham, carrots, onions, celery, herbs, spices and lard for twenty-four hours. It was the kind of dish which would have graced one of the Prince Regent’s grand banquets.

In Carpet of Snowdrops, Joscelin brings a Christmas Pie for Eloise and Goody. Goody is somewhat tickled:

     “Christmas joy to you, too, Goody. I have a gift for you as well.” Joscelin handed over the basket.
As Goody removed the blue and white cloth, a small gasp escaped her.
“Christmas Pie, what a treat! Thank you.”
“I had my cook prepare it for you this morning.”
Eloise screwed up her nose at the large domed pie. It had golden pastry decorated with crimped edges and elaborate pastry leaves and berries.
“What is in it?”
“Pigeon, chicken and pheasant, each bird being used to stuff the next in size,” Joscelin answered.
“My mouth is watering already,” Goody put in with a smile. “If you have no objection, my lord, step into the kitchen. I have some mulled wine heating.”
“I will be there directly. There is one more gift for you both. I will fetch it in.”
He went back outside, returning almost immediately with a small fir tree.
“Whatever have you brought that in for?” Goody demanded, reappearing with a steaming glass in her hand.
“I spent some time in a Prussian camp after Waterloo,” he explained. “It is a tradition in Prussia to bring a tree into the house and hang decorations on it. I also read somewhere that Queen Charlotte caused one to be put up at a children’s party a few years ago.”
“What a delightful idea!” 

Here is a recipe from the time: 

HAVING made a good standing crust, with the wall and bottom very thick, take and

bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them well, and
take half an ounce of mace, the same quantity of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of
cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together. Then add two large
spoonsful of salt: mix all well together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone,
first the pigeon, then the partridge, and cover them. Then proceed in the same manner
with the fowl, goose, and turkey, which must be large. Season them all well, and then
lay them in the crust, so that it may look only like a whole turkey. Then have a hare
cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Disjoint the hare into pieces, season it, and lay it as close as possible on one side; and
on the other side put woodcocks, moor-game, and any sort of wild fowl. Season them well,
and lay them close. Put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, and then lay on the lid,
which must be very thick, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will
take four hours baking at least. This crust will take a bushel of flour.

Plum Cake

No Christmas is complete without cake. The forerunner of the present day Christmas
Cake, this was first known as plum porridge and dates back to the beginning of
Christianity. The porridge evolved into a cake long before the sixteenth century.
To a pound and a half of fine flour, well dried, put the same quantity of butter, 
three quarters of a pound of currants washed and well picked; stone and slice half a
pound of raisins, eighteen ounces of sugar beat and sifted, and fourteen eggs, leaving
out half the whites; shred the peel of a large lemon exceeding fine, three ounces of
candied orange, the; same of lemon, a tea spoonful of beaten mace, half a nutmeg
grated, a tea-cupful of brandy, or white wine, and four spoonsful of orange flower.
First work the butter with the hand to a cream, then beat the sugar well in, whisk the
eggs for half an hour, then mix them with the sugar and butter, and put in the flour
and spices. The whole will take an hour and a half beating. When the oven is ready,
mix in lightly the brandy, fruit, and sweetmeats, then put it into the hoop, and bake it
two hours and a half.

(Half) Pound Cake (C) Heather King

This cake, based on a traditional recipe, uses approximately half a pound of each ingredient and is far less complicated than the Regency receipt quoted above.

Whatever you are eating this Yuletide, I wish you a joyful and peaceful Christmas, and Best Wishes for the New Year.

Happy Christmas!

All images public domain unless otherwise stated.

(C) Heather King

Apologies for formatting ~ having issues correcting.