I feel the north breeze chill as death;
Let grateful love quell maiden shame,
And grant him bliss who brings thee fame.'
From ‘The Crusader’s Return’ by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
It's a long story, but here's the gist. Once upon a time St Michaels Mount belonged to Henry de Pomeroy who was a supporter of that arch-baddie King John (- remember him - the sworn enemy of Robin Hood?) So Henry was a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham character. He occupied the Mount in about 1190 and dispossessed the French Benedictine Monks who lived there. Near the end of his life, Henry gave the advowson of Madron parish to the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. The Knights Hospitallers as they were called, had been established to give protection and aid to Crusaders. When King John was having all the trouble with the Barons before Magna Carta he needed the Knights on his side, so in 1204 he confirmed the gift. This lead to a long connection between Penzance, Madron, the Mount and the Knights. Saint John the Baptist's head is on the old Penzance crest, there is a church of St John in Penzance and major festivities on St John's Day as we have seen.
Every June The Knights of St John hold a service in the chapel on St Michaels Mount. This is not an unbroken tradition, it recommenced in the 1970s, but has continued ever since. Lord St Levan said in 1977 'It would be very sad if the Mount became nothing more than a tourist attraction. This is living history to go into the history books and I think the Benedictine monks would very much approve of it'
There is a theory that the Knights might have used some of the land around Madron for the growing of medicinal herbs for use in their hospitals, but nothing has ever been proved, simply that I'm told that botanists are intrigued by the variety and distinctiveness of the local flora there. The Crusaders had a major influence on British cuisine and our sweet tooth stems from their returning with reports of sugar cane growing and the subsequent introduction of sugar into our diet - think of Elizabeth I’s teeth - or lack of them!
So notwithstanding the risk of dental disaster, I've chosen something toothachingly sweet from the late Lady St Levan's book ' A Cornish Choice of Recipes' published in 1991. I've tinkered with it a bit.
Honey and Apple Tart as served on St Michael’s Mount
Shortcrust pastry made with 8oz flour and 4 oz butter
4oz stewed apple cooled and sweetened (I added 1/2 tsp vanilla extract)
1tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp mixed spice
4oz brown breadcrumbs
zest and rind half a lemon
2tbsp golden syrup
Line a 10” shallow plate with the pastry. Spread the apple over the pastry. Warm the syrup and the honey in a pan and add the lemon juice. Stir in the breadcrumbs, ginger, spice and lemon rind. Pour over the apple and bake at 180c for 30 minutes. Serve warm with clotted cream.
Alan Davidson (blessed be he) author of ‘The Oxford Companion to Food’, thinks that like sugar, saffron and many other spices, clotted cream may also have come to the south west from the Middle East as being a Levantine way of preserving cream so that it lasts longer. We may owe the Knights of St John more than we realise.
‘...Verses of pastry which melt
into milk and sugar in the mouth,
air and water to drink
the bites and kisses of love,
I long for eatable sonnets,
poems of honey and flour...’
From ‘Sweetness, Always’ by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)