14 September: Nut Gathering on Holy Rood Day

'Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May
Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May
On a cold and frosty morning..'

Traditional English Rhyme

The Holy Rood is a phrase used in the Catholic Church to mean the Cross of the Crucifixion. The word 'Rood' coming from the same Old English root as ‘rod’. As ever there’s some confusion about the day, but most sources say that it commemorates the discovery of the supposed ‘True Cross of Christ’ by St Helena who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She travelled to Jerusalem in 326AD and ordered the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is still there. September 14th is still one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox Calendar. You won’t be surprised to find either that there was also a Feast of Demeter the Goddess of Corn which was held at about this time.

Most of us come across the word ‘rood’ in relation to the screen which separates the nave from the choir in a church. Some of these rood screens are fantastic examples of mediaeval carving, but my favourite is this one, in the decommissioned church at Saltfleetby All Saints in Lincolnshire - a church with ten times more atmosphere than many still in use for worship. I like it because it's still got the remains of its mediaeval paint colour and it's not been not tidied up.

Holy Rood Day was a significant mediaeval holiday when tradition dictated that you went nut gathering. In most cases this meant gathering hazel nuts which were an important protein source in the winter for people and animals, but could also be sold to dyers, the nuts making both red and black dye. However people have been gathering hazel nuts in Britain since the dawn of time. In 1995 a shallow pit was discovered on the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides, it was full of the remains of hundreds of thousands of burned hazelnut shells which were carbon dated to about 7000 BC.

So I’ve been a'nutting and I picked these hazel nuts a few days ago at Godolphin within the boundaries of the estate which goes back well into the mediaeval period.This is what The Dictionary of English Folk Lore has to say about village nut gathering parties - ‘Lively affairs with much bawdiness and love making and jokes about testicles because of the way the nuts are clustered on the branches.’ The hazel nut was indeed a mediaeval symbol of fertility. AIas I went alone...

We also find a lot about nut gathering from John Clare, he wrote at least three poems about it, as he says:

‘The rural occupations of the year

Are each a fitting theme for pastoral song

And pleasing in our autumn paths appear

The group of nutters as they chat along

The woodland rides in strangest dissabille.....

...Till by the woodside waiting one and all

They gather homeward at the close of day

While maids with hastier step from shepherds brawl

Speed on half shamed of their strange disarray.'

So here's a cake which uses two of the best things you can find in the woods at this time of year.

A Forager's Cake

6oz butter

6oz caster sugar

3 large eggs

5oz SR flour + 1/2 tsp baking powder

2 oz roasted and coarsely ground hazelnuts

3oz blackberries

Prepared 8" spring form cake tin. Oven 180c

Cream the butter and sugar in the usual way, then add the eggs little by little, mix the nuts, flour and BP then fold into the batter. Fold in the blackberries last of all and put into the tin. Bake for about 45 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Serve with yoghurt and blackberry compote. This is a delicious cake - and it makes a small amount of nuts and blackberries go a long way.

'Her chariot is an empty hazelnut,

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o' mind the fairies' coachmakers.

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers' brains, and then they dream of love. . . .'

A description of Queen Mab from 'Romeo and Juliet' ( William Shakespeare 1564-1616)

PS Just in case you're wondering 'gathering nuts in May' implies going to the woods for another purpose altogether...


Anonymous said...

Ah, I love hazel nuts! I'm going to have to get you to reveal your secret foraging place!

Here at Casa Kestle, we're inundated with blackberries at the moment after a busy weekend of brambling. Crumbles and cordial have been made; bramble jelly is on the go. But that cake looks lovely, so I might have to add some nuts to my collection.

Choclette said...

Gorgeous looking cake Liz and another interesting post. BUT you haven't addressed the nuts in May issue. I did know this, but can no longer remember and was hoping you were going to tell me. Having said that, I have a nasty feeling maybe you already did - will have a look back!

Also not sure about when to gather the hazels - they are all still white around here and I thought you needed to gather them brown??? Panicking that the squirrels will get there before me.

Liz said...

I found a few just brown ones but did have to supplement them a bit, having said that even if you pick them white as long as they are fully formed they do turn brown in a few days. I think Godolphin might have a squirrel management policy ( is that true julie - if you're reading this..?)
See the bottom line re nuts in May...
Helen - it's very near my secret blackberry place...

kate said...

and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh is connected to this Holy Rood? So interesting - thank you K x

Choclette said...

Liz - just checked with CT (who is my memory bank) and he's reminded me about nuts in May. Gathering knots of may (as in flowering hawthorne boughs). Does that seem likely? Don't know how I missed your PS before - certainly haven't heard that one before, but ...

Liz said...

I think that's correct and the proper meaning of the phrase, knots in May sounds right, nuts in May are impossible. Given the terrible reputation of nut gathering parties maybe it's an early example of double entendre ...

Gerry Snape said...

Well I have the nuts and I have the blackberries and it only remains for me to set to and bake this goodie. Thankyou for another wonderful post.[ nothing rood about it!]

Jo said...

My twopence worth - there is possibly a link between the hazelnut - also known as the filbert - and St Philbert, whose festival is on the 22nd August - linked to the start of the harvesting?

They were also wild trees in the Mediterranean regions (also mentioned by Pliny as growing on the edge of the Black Sea - and Turkey is still a major producer) - and ancient remains have also been found in China - and they were then cultivated in Europe. Kent was a major producer here, hence the many places beginning with 'Hazel' in that region.

There was also the practice of burning nuts on All-Hallows' Eve, Oct 31st,
as in Robert Burns' poem, Halloween, 'To burn their nits [nuts], an' pou their stocks/An' haud their Halloween'.

With regards the Holy Rood - which is also linked to the passion flower - I think that hazel wood was traditionally used for divining rods, as well as, ahem, Hermes rod. Etymologically,it has been suggested that the word hazel is linked to 'behest' and giving orders - and it was used as a sceptre, or rod, of authority - also symbolically placed in the coffins of ecclesiastics.

Love the picture of the Saltfleetby church - last time I was there I was heavily pregnant and walked along the beach hoping to jiggy things on a bit! XX

Liz said...

You are getting as bad as me Jo, gathering fascinating facts - interesting about St Philbert, I hadn't found that connection - or the coffin thing either - thanks