May Day

‘Joan takes her neat-rubbed pail, and now
She trips to milk the sand red cow;
Where for some sturdy football swain
Joan strokes a syllabub or twain..’

From: ‘On a Bank as I sat Fishing: A Description of the Spring’ by Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639)

The Anglo Saxons called May ‘Ðrimilcemonað’ – ‘month of three milkings’, because of the lushness of the grass at this time there would have been a glut of milk, and May is the month of the Roman Goddess Maia – the Goddess of the Fields. It is hard to underestimate the importance of milk to our ancestors. Milk was fresh, on the spot, preservable protein.

The farm dairy was a woman’s preserve. My Grandmother ‘did’ the calves and made curd as I’ve mentioned before, although she never touched milk herself,- one of my earliest memories is seeing her put hot water on her Shredded Wheat. Dairy maids were supposed to have wonderful complexions and this was probably true, not because they washed their faces in the May morning dew, but because they were immune from smallpox, as Edward Jenner discovered to the benefit of us all.

May Day was a traditional holiday for milkmaids who would dress up in their finest clothes and dance through the streets with a May Garland. This was of polished metal utensils balanced on the head of an accommodating male friend. Samuel Pepys walked to Westminster on the morning of 1 May 1667 ‘meeting many milkmaids with their garlands among their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them’.

In ‘Cornish Feasts and Folk Lore’ Miss Courtney tells us that ‘Boys and girls in Cornwall sat up until 12 o’clock on the eve of May Day and then marched around the towns and villages with musical instruments collecting their friends and going a-Maying. May Day is ushered in at Penzance by the discordant blowing of tin horns.’
They also blew on 'Penzance May Day whistles', little tubes of green wood – usually sycamore, whittled for the occasion and still remembered by many.

All this late night junketing might have harked back to the ancient belief that making love in the fields on May Day Eve promoted a good harvest. In fact the demographic historians (the train spotters of historical study) can find no evidence of this in birth patterns. I’ve been wondering however, whether in fact, and to put it as delicately as I can; the seed might not have been spilled onto the ground? That would seem to make more sense to me.

Anyway whatever they were doing the night before, on May morning young people called at their neighbours with boughs of hawthorn to decorate doorways and to demand a treat of freshly clotted cream, junket, syllabub or ‘suck cream’ as it was called in Cornwall.

Enough rambling; lets have a milk maid’s breakfast.

There’s a long and well established tradition in relation to syllabub, as Sir Henry says above. You make it frothy by squirting the milk straight from the cow. I think I'll use my trusty stick blender, unless I creep out tomorrow morning with my milking stool. Here’s a recipe from 1781 quoted by Elizabeth David.

'A fine syllabub from the cow'
‘Sweeten a quart of cider with refined sugar, grate a nutmeg over it; and milk the cow into your liquor. When you have added what is necessary pour half a pint of the sweetest cream.

(From Dorset Dishes of the 18th Century)
The so called ‘everlasting syllabub’ was not so much a separated froth and liquor as a sweetened and flavoured cream. Here's Elizabeth David again;

Rind of one lemon pared very thinly, 4oz white wine or sherry, 2 tablespoons brandy, 2 oz sugar, ½ pint double cream, nutmeg.

Put the lemon rind into the wine and brandy and leave overnight. Strain the alcohol into a large wide bowl and add the sugar. Pour in the cream very slowly and grate in the nutmeg. Now whisk carefully until forming soft peaks and spoon into glasses. Sir Kenelm Digby in his 1669 version of syllabub adds a spring of rosemary to decorate

During WW2 my grandparents had a succession of evacuees with them on the farm whom they took delight in feeding up as best they could. Most of them were from Glasgow and had never been into the countryside before. One morning whilst watching my Auntie Win milking – by hand of course, a tiny little lassie looked at the cow’s udders and said to her in a heavy Glaswegian accent ‘Aire they elaistick?’

….The Dairymaid she curtsied
And went and told the Alderney
‘Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread’
The Alderney said sleepily
‘You’d better tell his Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade instead’…

From ‘The Kings Breakfast’ By A.A. Milne (1882-1956)


ginny said...

i really enjoy popping over to read your posts, thankyou.
wishing you a very happy Mayday!
p.s. i overslept this morning so was not up to bathe in the morning dew but i shall have something dairy instead!

Gerry Snape said...

Oh what a wonderful blog! My grandmother was the 2nd wife of an Armagh farmer and her main responsibility was the dairy. she made butter be sending the pony round and round to churn it. And the butter that resulted was sent to the Armagh markets with her pesonal stamp "The rose of Armagh". My father in his teens took it to the markets by pony and trap and as he went he wore a top hat to make sure that every one knew his mother's butter was the best!

Liz said...

Thanks both for the kind words. Glad you enjoy reading all this as much as I love writing it.