‘Twenty ninth of May
Royal Oak Day
If you don’t give us a holiday
We’ll all run away’
Children’s Rhyme c1860
Royal Oak Day commemorates the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and Charles II's return to London after Britain’s brief eleven year experiment with republicanism. This was a happy time for the Feast and Festival lover as many traditional celebrations including Christmas had been banned by the Puritans during the Interregnum. May 29 became a public holiday and remained so until 1859 when, much to the annoyance of children who lost a day away from school, it was abolished - hence the rhyme above.
The traditional story is that after the Battle of Worcester the future Charles II hid in an oak tree - that symbol of British sea power. I feel the story wouldn’t have been the same if he had hidden in a laburnum or a poplar. The day was celebrated by church bells and bonfires, civic dinners and the wearing of a sprig of oak leaves in the hat or buttonhole. After 1714 with the succession of George I (who incidentally was born on 28 May 1660), the oak became associated with the Jacobites and thus became a symbol of national division. Not wearing the required sprig exposed you to the taunts of their opponents and the likelihood of being pursued by small boys clutching bunches of nettles (ouch). If you were, heaven forbid, a religious nonconformist you displayed a bunch of nettles on your door instead of a sprig of oak. So as a gesture of non-conconformity I’m going to make a Nettle and Yarg tart.
Nettles are good for you, as John Gay says:
‘Successive cries the seasons change declare,
And mark the monthly progress of the year.
Hark, how the streets with treble voices ring,
To sell the bounteous product of the spring!
Sweet-smelling flowers, and elder's early bud,
With nettle's tender shoots, to cleanse the blood’
From Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London by John Gay (1685-1732)
Nettles have long been associated with human habitation and are one of the most useful of plants, as well as being a host for the orange tip butterfly. When they are young you can eat them, you can feed them to your animals – especially poultry and when the leaves are old and fibrous, you can make cloth out of them. I love the Hans Anderson story ‘The Twelve Swans’ where a devoted sister has to weave nettle cloaks for her brothers to break the spell that turned them into swans. She succeeds, but one brother is left with a swan’s wing instead of an arm because she runs out of time.
Yarg is a mild and creamy Cornish cheese made near Truro and wrapped in a cover of nettle leaves. The leaves are collected from a site about a mile from where I live.
Nettle and Yarg Tart
I lined a flan tin with shortcrust pastry and let it rest a while. Then my friend Mags washed a colander full of nettle tops that I made her pick (with gloves on!) and picked out any stalks. I took out some of the best leaves and blanched them separately to decorate. We then blanched the rest of the nettles until soft - about 5 minutes in boiling water, and drained them off.
I melted about 1 oz butter in a pan and added the nettles which absorbed the butter, they felt and looked like a soft spinachy mass, but less slimey. I broke three eggs in a bowl, added a heaped tablespoon of creme fraiche and whisked them to amalgamate, then I added about half a cup of milk and seasoned well. I grated 4 oz of yarg without the rind. We put the nettles in the bottom of the flan case, added the liquid and put grated cheese on top, then added the whole leaves. The tart baked for about 35 minutes at 170c.
The nettles floated nicely through the tart and we ate it lukewarm with watercress salad and new potatoes. It was lovely.
The Stinging Nettle
The stinging nettle only
Will still be found to stand:
The numberless, the lonely,
The thronger of the land,
The leaf that hurts the hand.
That thrives, come sun, come showers;
Blow east, blow west, it springs;
It peoples towns, and towers
Above the courts of Kings,
And touch it and it stings.
A. E. Housman (1859-1936)