30th June: The Annual Service of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem

‘...Inured to Syria's glowing breath,

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

5tbsp honey

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)


Emmalene said...

I just love this blog! Soooo interesting and informative- you should get it published, Liz ;-)
Did you ever see The Devil's Whore on TV about the English civil war? The last scene was on that beach with a picture of St Michael's Mount in the background, if memory serves me correctly.
Will have to try this apple dessert sometime, and cream with saffrom in sounds heavenly...

Liz said...

I loved The Devil's Whore ! Remember the guy with the scar?.....why do I always prefer the bad boys...?

Choclette said...

Thank you Liz - I had forgotten both the origin of clotted cream and my copy of the Oxford Food Companion languishing unloved on a shelf.

Emmalene said...

Ah yes...I liked him too. Sexby was his name, sexy by nature. Played by John Simm?

Jo said...

...and in a Botrell Cornish droll - which concerns a ghostly crusader and St Buryan, desribes how many Cornish set out for crusade: '...though many who were resolved to go to Jericho went no farther than Relubbus or Fraddam! They took with them so much of fuggans, hoggans and pasties that they were glad to stop often the first day to lighten the load and keep up their strength. So they sat themselves down and finished off a pasty each one, on the bank of every clear stream they passed!...Of the West Country female Crusaders, though, many turned tail after a day or so and came home again...Very few even of the men held on to reach the Tamar. Our Cornish warriors were doubtless right to come back and let Levelis and St. George slay the dragons and the Turkish Knights. Some one had to remain at home and raise tin!' I just LOVE the idea of them all stuffing themselves full of pasties (and fuggans and hoggans??) after a day's jolly following the Crusade standards, and coming home!