30 April: Beltane

‘Throughout recorded history it has taken very little persuasion to get English people to make a bonfire..’

‘A Dictionary of English Folklore’ by Jacqueline Stevens and Steve Roud. OUP 2000

What to do ? – Three festivals and one day! So I’m going to post Beltane and St Walpurgis today and May Day on its proper day tomorrow.

Beltane is the pagan festival that celebrates the beginning of summer. In pastoral societies that practiced transhumance, i.e. the movement of animals from winter quarters to summer grazing, like they still do in parts of the Alps and the Apennines, the feast of Beltane marked the beginning of that process. Rather than being a reinvention based on supposition and wishful thinking, Beltane is one of the pagan practices that we do know something about. It involved a fire ritual. Druidical bonfires were lit and the beasts were driven between them apparently to give protection during the forthcoming grazing season. The earliest evidence of this is from a document written in Ireland about 900 called the ‘Sanas Chormaic’ which refers to 'Bel' or 'Bil' fires.

In ‘Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall’ by William Bottrell published in 1873 he refers to the ancient customs preserved in by ‘old fashioned people’ in ‘remote and primitive districts’ – he means West Cornwall, of holding ‘Baal fires’ at Midsummer. We shall see more about that when the time comes. The practice of Beltane fires was preserved in Scotland and Ireland until the 1820s. It sometimes seems to me in relation to our oldest feasts and festivals that those not killed off by the Reformation were either lost during the Agrarian revolution or suffocated by Victorian evangelism.

30th April is also St Walpurgis Night. It’s a time when witches were supposed to be particularly active and special precautions were needed to protect people and animals, which of course ties in neatly with Beltane. So in addition to the bonfires mentioned above, branches of rowan or yellow flowers would have been placed near doorways and astringent herbs burned. Dairies and dairy equipment were deemed particularly vulnerable (see tomorrow). The fires of Walpurgis Night are well documented and still practiced in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

So let’s imagine a group of people on high ground at night. The animals have been driven between the bonfires and the herdsmen and their womenfolk sit around a pile of glowing embers. What do they do? They cook! All the old accounts of Beltane mention something being done with oatcakes or bannocks which may be cooked earlier and then shared round the fire, or which may be cooked on a hearthstone heated in the embers of the Beltane fire. Colin Spencer in British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Year History' tells us that a supply of oatcakes would have been prepared for the summer and packed into the butter churns for transportation to the uplands, so it all fits together nicely.
Anyway Beltane sounds like a very jolly feast, a good excuse for a night under the stars and I like oatcakes too, so here goes.

‘Meanwhile the hot hearth stone was swept ready for use. We thought oatcakes would be appropriate, so my guess at a prehistoric version was a mixture of Macroom ground (not rolled) oats with a little butter rubbed through, salted and moistened with milk. We flattened pieces in our hands and threw them on the stone. We turned them, they swelled up and they were definitely edible..’

Myrtle Allen in ‘The Irish Times’ 15 May 1993.

Darina Allen’s version from ‘The Forgotten Skills of Cookery’ 2009

6 oz stone ground oatmeal
2 oz white flour
Pinch baking powder
½ tsp salt (and I added a few grinds of black pepper)
1 oz melted lard or butter
Boiling water to make a firm dough
Oven at 180c
Mix the dry ingredients then add the wet ones. Mix and roll out as thinly as possible. Cut into squares or triangles and put on baking trays. Bake until lightly golden for about 25 minutes.
Alternatively cook on a griddle pan over a medium heat for about 10 minutes. Let dry on a wire rack. I think that the ones I did on the griddle were marginally better - they had a slightly more toasty flavour and they cooked much more quickly. Darina Allen doesn’t say it, but if you resist the temptation to cut these into rounds, you avoid reworking the dough and making it tough.
We ate the oatcakes for lunch with a piece of Manchego and apples, - delicious.

'Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at the fire-folk sitting in the air…'

From ‘The Starlight Night’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

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