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 caster sugar
3 large eggs
5oz SR flour + 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 oz roasted and coarsely ground hazelnuts
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...