25 March: Lady Day

After dinner to my papers and Tangier accounts again till supper, and after supper again to them, but by my mixing them, I know not how, my private and publique accounts, it makes me mad to see how hard it is to bring them to be understood, and my head is confounded, that though I did sweare to sit up till one o’clock upon them, yet, I fear, it will be to no purpose, for I cannot understand what I do or have been doing of them to-day.’
Diary of Samuel Pepys: Lady Day, Sunday 25 March 1666

Lady Day being nine months before Christmas Day is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the day of the Angel Gabriel’s visit. Until 1752 Lady Day was the day the New Year started in Great Britain. Most of the rest of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar with its January 1 New Year’s Day two hundred years previously, but for various political reasons, mostly to do with the Popish nature of the Gregorian calendar the Protestant British stubbornly refused to conform until the disparity became ridiculous. The practice of starting the New Year around the vernal equinox rather than in midwinter is understandable but it doesn’t fit the maths.
Lady Day was also an important date in the agricultural calendar as it was the starting date for agricultural leases and therefore one of the quarter days when the rent was due. As Samuel Pepys says above, it was also a time for doing your accounts and later for doing your tax return. When my ancestor John Hewson realised that his father’s farm would eventually pass intact to his elder brother Thomas, he left the family holding at Barnoldy Le Bec in Lincolnshire and rented his own farm nearby. He would have gone to pay his rent on the same day as Pepys wrote the entry above.
The English practice of primogeniture, although at first sight morally inequitable, led to interesting results. It prevented farms from being subdivided and made them more economical to run. It also shaped the physical landscape we can still see in the English countryside, and meant younger sons often left the land; they entered industry or went to the colonies – and the rest as they say, is history.
However fascinating though this is (for me) I’ve strayed away from Lady Day. In the days before any sort of security for an agricultural tenant, it was sensible for the wise farmer to keep on the right side of his landlord. So when you took a day off work to take him your rent, you also took a gift. Traditionally at Michaelmas this was a goose, spring offerings were more diverse as there wasn’t much in the store cupboard. Let us imagine that in 1666 John Hewson visits the agent of the Earl of Yarbrough with his rent and he takes with him a young lamb. Aries the Ram rules the skies, it’s auspicious.

Slow Roasted Lamb

Put the oven up to maximum heat and place the lamb in a roasting tin. I usually cook shoulder, but today it was a leg of Welsh lamb. Now add whatever aromatics you think appropriate. The ‘hard’ herbs are the ones to go for - rosemary, thyme, garlic, lavender, bay leaves. I used thyme and rosemary, the latter of course particularly appropriate today. You could also try some twiggy bits of oregano or marjoram, half an orange, or even handfuls of clean hay soaked in water – not as mad as it sounds, after all the hay went into the lamb in the first place.

When the oven is at full heat cover the lamb tightly with foil and put in the oven. Turn the heat down to 160c and bake for 4 hours. The meat will fall off the bone and you won’t have all the palaver of trying to carve a joint.

I roasted a tray of root vegetables to have alongside, and you do need something to cut the richness of the meat. The traditional British accompaniment to lamb and mutton is caper sauce but I think the idea of a white sauce with capers in it is revolting. I tossed a dessertspoonful of capers in the pan juices and added a slug of white wine, then I reduced it to a delicious syrupy gravy. Mustard or salsa verde would be good too.

Aren’t there annunciationsof one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.
More often those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from in dread,
in a wave of weakness,
in despair and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue…..

From ‘Annunciation’ by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

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