12 May: Ascension Day Eve - Levens Hall Radish Feast

'The man pulling radishes
pointed my way with a radish.’

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

I have a print of Levens Hall by Arthur Byrne. I like it because it shows the crazy topiary garden at Levens and because it’s done simply in shades of green and white. It hangs over the fireplace in my bedroom, I look at it every day and it makes me smile. This is it:

Until 1880 there was a Radish Feast every 12 May at Levens Hall in association with the nearby Milnthorpe Fair which was held on Ascension Day Eve. The fair had been going since the fourteenth century and no one knows when the Radish Feast began, it was well established by 1822 when the Lonsdale Magazine had this to say:

"Punch and Morocco (beer) were handed liberally around and bread and butter and reddishes (sic) vanished with great rapidity. The various sports which are regularly kept up on that day as remnants of the feudal times, gave great pleasure to the respective parties. After the sun had retired, and the shadows of the evening drew on, a variety of songs and numerous tracts kept the gardens alive till nearly ten o'clock when the company separated highly gratified with the day's amusements".

I thought at first the Feast was in conjunction with a competition for radish growers like the Gooseberry Clubs of the north of England which were started by weavers. But actually it seems to have been a rather alcoholic knees-up for the local worthies – all male, women weren’t allowed. It eventually petered out in the 1880s,

"as the times were full of agitation for change, when women have already attained seats on School Boards and, if ratepayers, are eligible to vote in municipal contests and who knows that they may succeed in breaking down the barriers that have been effective against them at Levens’

(Roger Bingham from The Chronicles of Milnthorpe)

The famous illustration of Peter Rabbit shows him eating what most people think is a carrot. It’s not; it’s a Long Scarlet radish, now regarded as a ‘heritage variety’ having been over taken in popularity by the round red cherry variety you see in supermarkets. My favourite is the mild ‘French Breakfast’. I wonder if the French do actually eat radishes for breakfast?

I like radishes despite their reputation for giving you heartburn and I think the best way of eating them is the simplest. Pull the radishes out of the ground, rinse them and put them on a plate with some coarse salt, unsalted butter and a hunk of French bread. That’s it.

I grew these radishes in a couple of pots in my little portable greenhouse. They are 'French Breakfast' and they took less than 6 weeks from seed to plate.

PS: Just in case you're wondering, the salt is 'fleur de sel gris' from the Guerande (I'm a bit of a salt freak)

'Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.'

From 'The Trees' by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)


Gerry Snape said...

thankyou for the Levens Hall post. We go there at least once a year. It's a magic place to wander in. But I knew nothing about the Ascension eve celebration. Also thankyou for the verse you put up each time. Love it.peingu

Choclette said...

I'm so glad I discovered your blog - it's such fun to discover all these feasts & festivals which I am so unaware of. I would so love to have a bunch of radishes to tuck into right now. Last time I tried growing radishes, the slugs ate the lot. Maybe I should try again. We also have quite a collection of salt including Grey Breton sea salt which is our main one used for cooking.

Liz said...

I've had the slug problem too, pots are definitely the answer. I used a couple of old bulb pots and they worked fine.

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

I love the idea of a radish feast! They're so undervalued and underused, IMHO. Such a shame, as not only are they tasty and versatile, but they're so easy to grow, too.