Michaelmas Daisies, Michaelmas Term, Michaelmas Fairs – who can doubt the importance of this quarter day to our ancestors? Once the autumn equinox is past we enter into the final quarter of the year, the season of both storing up the fruits of autumn against the bitter season ahead, and sowing the new seed with its promise of spring.
Michaelmas was traditionally symbolized by ‘glove, geese, and ginger’. The glove represented the (hoped for) open-handedness of the lord of the manor, eating goose forecast prosperity in the coming year, and the ginger was believed to provide protection against an unhealthy season.
I've mentioned before about the habit of taking a gift to your landlord or his agent . As the symbolism mentioned above indicates, the traditional fare both to eat and to give at Michaelmas is a goose. Not just any goose however – a green goose, that is a young goose of about four months which has been naturally fattened on any grain left to sprout on the fields before ploughing and sowing winter crops. A Christmas Goose would be fattened on corn, but a Michaelmas goose is thought to be leaner and more aromatic in flavour than a Christmas one. I was fascinated to discover very recently that the habit of eating a goose at this season is being revived. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/sep/22/goose-michaelmas-popular
There are many other traditions and superstitions associated with this festival. The weather or phase of the moon at Michaelmas was significant. ‘If Michael brings acorns, Christmas brings snow’ and ‘Dark Michaelmas – Light Christmas’. The breastbone of the Michaelmas goose was also used to forecast the weather for the coming winter by holding it up to the light. A translucent breastbone meant that the coming winter would be mild, while a thick breastbone meant it would be a hard winter.
Michaelmas also signals the start of the period, which lasts until Lady Day, when the curfew bell is rung in the evening as a sign to bank down the fire (couve-feu) and go to bed. It is also the day on which the reeve of the village would be appointed or elected. The reeve, if you don't know your Chaucer, is the intermediary between the serfs on a manor and the Lord or his steward, a sort of early accountant or administrator.
Because it is sowing time, Michaelmas is regarded as the start of the farming year and also the beginning of the academic and legal year. It’s a common time for hiring or ‘mop’ fairs, although there will be more to say about those at Martinmas next month. In Mediaeval times of course, fairs and court hearings often coincided in the so-called ‘pie powder’ courts - from the Norman French 'pieds poudres', when travelling magistrates administered justice on a day when people were gathered together for a market. Michaelmas also traditionally marks the end of the fishing season and the start of the hunting season.
So now I have a problem, no geese are to be had except with great difficulty and expense. My cousin Les rears free range poultry, but he is 400 miles away and his geese aren’t ready anyway. The Scots eat a special sort of bannock at Michaelmas but I think we’ve had enough cakey/bready stuff recently. I have to say also that goose at £12 per kilo is a lot for the F&F budget to accommodate.
So I have an idea; I‘m going to make duck confit with a tin of goose fat which has been lurking in my cupboard for a few months and serve it with hedgerow relish. This latter containing blackberries picked well before Michaelmas, when of course Satan, after his banishment from heaven and his cosmic fight with St Michael, pisses on them.
Duck confit masquerading as goose.
I put two duck legs into a plastic bag with 3 crushed garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons of coarse salt, 2 bay leaves, one star anise, a few twists of pepper and a slug of whisky (I would have used calvados if I'd had any) then put it in the fridge and left it for 24 hours.
Then I took out the duck, rinsed off the salt, dried it and put it into a heavy saucepan. I made sure the duck was covered with the goose fat, added parsley stalks, bay leaf, more garlic and some thyme. I brought it to the boil then turned down the heat to the lowest possible and let it simmer for an hour and a half. When it was cool I put it into a kilner jar where it will keep in a cool place for at least a month. The fat is of course delectable. To revive the guck or doose, put a piece into an oven proof dish and roast in a hot oven until brown and sizzling.
“The Michaelmas Daisies, among dede weeds,
Bloom for St Michael's valorous deeds.
And seems the last of flowers that stood,
Till the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.”