April 11: Cerealia

A single fruit grew on that tree, a bright pomegranate fruit. Persephone stood up in the chariot and plucked the fruit from the tree. Then did Aidoneus prevail upon her to divide the fruit, and, having divided it, Persephone ate seven of the pomegranate seeds."

The Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum (1881-1972)

For one week – around the second week in April, the Romans celebrated a feast called ‘Cerealia’ devoted to Ceres and her daughter Proserpine, the female deities better known by their Greek names, Demeter and Persephone. The story is familiar; Proserpine is abducted to the underworld by Pluto who makes her his wife. Her heartbroken mother Ceres searches for her in vain. As the Goddess of the Corn grieves for her loss, plants wither and die and the earth grows barren. Jupiter commands Pluto to return Proserpine and Pluto complies, but as Padraic Colum says above, eating the fateful pomegranate seeds condemns Proserpine to spend part of the year in the underworld. However every spring she returns and the earth grows abundant once again.
In the Greek pantheon, Demeter’s priestesses were supposed to induct young lovers into the joys of physical love and Robert Graves in ‘Greek Myths’ points to connections between that and the fertility rites carried out in fields to ensure a good harvest. For centuries there was a belief in England that people made love in the fields on May Day Eve (see the upcoming May Day post).
The Persephone myth is first told in an ancient Homeric Ode called ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ written similarly to the Iliad and the Odyssey probably about 650BC. Demeter/Ceres was an important deity worshipped by women, symbolising as she does fertility and mother love. Not such a great leap then to the Virgin Mary.

Detail from ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ by Sandro Botticelli in the Uffizi Gallery Florence

The fertile pomegranate tree produces flowers and fruit at the same time which may also be how pomegranates earned their place in renaissance iconography. The Greeks supposed it to have sprung from the blood of Adonis and pomegranate symbolism exists in many cultures. The fruit signifies variously, blood and by extension menstruation, death but also wifely and motherly devotion, hope, fruitfulness and righteousness. Like the fig which also has many seeds, it’s a sexy fruit. The Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting of Persephone says it all.

Because of the vagaries of the calendar we have a couple of weeks between Easter and St George’s Day, so we need two simple feasts to cheer us up. Cerealia seems to fit the bill for the first one, combining as it does cereals and pomegranates. All this is really just an excuse really to make jewelled couscous. I love couscous, it’s the mouth feel – all that graininess rolling round your tongue (same reason I like caviar). So let’s have couscous accompanied by a gently spiced stew with lots of juice. It’s the couscous that’s the main event here, let your imagination run riot. The stew can be anything of your own devising. I made one of simply spiced vegetables.

Jewelled Couscous

As with all dry grains you need 70 -100 grams per portion depending on how hungry you are. I pour boiling water over my couscous to just cover it and add a glug of good olive oil and lots of salt and black pepper. Fork it through until it swells and puffs up. Now think about your additions. I used pistachios, chopped apricots, pumpkin seeds, fresh coriander and thyme, a little bit of preserved lemon and my pomegranate seeds. Then I dribbled the plate with a few drops of pomegranate molasses, and more olive oil and sprinkled some sumac onto it. Couscous reheats well in a microwave but keep forking to prevent it going lumpy.

"Don't use the pomegranate inhospitably, a stranger that has come so far to pay his respects to thee"

Peter Collinson an English Quaker to his friend John Bartram. Philadelphia, 1762.

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