Thomas Hardy (1840-1926) ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’
I have a love-hate relationship with Hardy’s novels. I feel weak spirited that I can’t read the dark novels - Tess and Jude - I find them too upsetting, but I love the lighter ones; ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ in particular. Hardy was born on 2 June 1840, so tomorrow would have been his 170th birthday.
Sheep formed the back bone of the British economy up to the Industrial Revolution, hence the woolsack on which the Lord Chancellor a sits on formal occasions. Like many events in the agricultural year, sheep shearing was a communal activity and an opportunity for neighbours to get together after a lot of hard work.
In FFTMC on the first day of June, after the shearing is done, Bathsheba Everdene and her workers have supper together. As the old illustration shows above Bathsheba is inside the house and shares in the event through the window. Farmer Boldwood turns up and Gabriel Oak is moved from his seat at the other end of the table to make way for him. This is just after the touching episode when Gabriel tries to teach Bathsheba how to hold the sheep shears by holding her hands in his own. She rebuffs him then, and again now when she makes him give up his seat to Farmer Boldwood. We want her to marry Gabriel the shepherd all along, but we have to wait until the end of the novel for a resolution.
There’s a shepherd in Shakespeare’s ‘Winters Tale’ too, this is his son the clown speaking:
‘I cannot do't without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice, - what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on.......I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates?--none, that's out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of raisins o' the sun.
Warden pies eh ? The Warden Pear takes its name from the Cistercian Abbey at Warden in Bedfordshire. It’s a small cooking pear, but in its absence I used small Conference pears.
12oz buttery shortcrust pastry
4 firm pears peeled
2 oz caster sugar
Good pinch saffron threads
Squeeze of lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 oz butter
Line a pie dish with half the pastry. Core and halve the pears lengthways. Put the saffron into about half a pint of hot water and add 2 oz sugar and the lemon juice. Simmer until the saffron has coloured the syrup and the sugar has dissolved. Simmer the pears long enough to soften them up a bit - how long depends on how large and ripe the pears are. Let the pears cool in the syrup then take them out (keep the syrup) and set the pears into the pie dish. Scatter the brown sugar over the pears, and sprinkle spices and raisins on top (and a few slivers of unsalted butter). Lay the top crust over, cut to size, and crimp the edges. I made a fancy decoration of a pear branch on the top with my pastry scraps. Brush with egg and bake at 170c until the crust is golden - 45 minutes or so. Strain out the saffron from the syrup and boil it down until is is really syrupy and serve with the pie and lots of cream.
'Our sheep-shear is over and supper is past
Here's an health to our mistresse all in a full glasse
For she is a goode 'ooman and provides us with cheere
Here's an health to our mistress, so drink up your beere!'
Anonymous 16c Ballad