3rd September: The Cornish Gorsedd

Now, of all the birds that keep the tree,
Which is the wittiest fowl?
Oh, the Cuckoo—the Cuckoo's the one!—
For he Is wiser than the owl!

From 'A Cornish Folk Song' by the Rev. R.S. Hawker (1803-1875)

In his huge text on the geography of the known world, the Greek writer Strabo (63BC-24AD) refers to the Celtic tradition of honouring the bards, the singers and poets who preserved the history and traditions of the tribes living on the western fringes of Europe. Local tribal chiefs would have a bard on hand to entertain the company after supper with harp, song and story from a long oral tradition now completely lost.

We know from ancient Welsh sources that there were three major locations where these bards periodically came together for the purpose of ceremony and competitions in music, poetry and literature. One of these ‘Gorsedd’ places was ‘Beisgawen’ which is now widely accepted as being Boscawen n’ Un the ancient stone circle near St Buryan in West Penwith.

Modern interest began in the late eighteenth century with one famously eccentric Welshman called Iolo Morganwg, who researched what little was known about the ancient bards and then made up the rest! Just as the last few native Cornish speakers were dying out Iolo Morgawg established the Welsh Gorsedd and that led in the late nineteenth century, to interest amongst scholars in similarly restoring the bardic tradition in Cornwall.

The first Cornish Gorsedd back in the 1920s was held at Boscawen and I hope the spirits of the old bards were still there to see it.

Every year the Cornish bards meet at their chosen Gorsedd place - and then they process with dignified ceremony. The venue (Helston this year) is moved around the county to ensure everyone gets the chance to observe these revered custodians of Cornish culture.

The ceremony begins with the sounding of the horn ‘Corn Gwlas’ a symbolic call to the four points of the compass and the Grand Bard asks his fellow bards if there is peace. On their third assurance of ‘Peace!’ the proceedings commence.

It’s all very dignified, and a far cry from the Gorsedd meetings of the bards of ancient times which probably had a great deal of raucous feasting and heavy drinking associated with them.

Anyway, in association with the modern Cornish Gorsedd there are now numerous competitions both in English and Cornish for poems and other creative endeavours and finally after all that culture there is a jolly good tea for the bards and a Gorsedd concert for the local community.

Cornish Under-Roast

In all but the poorest Cornish kitchens, the cooking was done on a cast iron Cornish range, and the use of the range dictated the way that things were cooked – usually with the greatest economy as to fuel. A Cornish under-roast can be made with any sort of meat, but cheap cuts that benefit from long slow cooking are best. Quantities are hard to give, so this is a method rather than a recipe.

Peel some potatoes and halve them, boil them for five minutes then slice half of them and leave the rest in chunks, put the sliced potatoes in the bottom of a roasting tin. Lay on a thinly sliced onion. Season well. Lay the meat on top and then cover with the rest of the potatoes cut side down. Season again and dribble some oil over. Add about half a pint of water (or stock if you have it – a cube will do), cover the dish with foil and put into the oven at 160c for an hour. Take off the foil and cook for another hour. All the water will have been absorbed; the potatoes should be crisp and brown on top but melting underneath and the meat cooked to tenderness.

I like this with a leafy green vegetable especially buttered cabbage.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee

My shred of minstrelsy

I carol at this meditative hour,

Linking thee with my reed,

Grey moor and grassy mead,

Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

From 'The Cornish Chough' by John Harris (1820-1884)


Liz said...

Apologies for the not-quite -in-focus photo, a drinks party before supper last night went on a bit longer than expected... but it did prove the tolerance of an under- roast which was cooked for an hour longer than I suggested and was meltingly delicious.

Sage said...

Interesting, I knew of the Gorsedd, but not of the underroast... will have to try this.

Karen S Booth said...

A GREAT post, we have more in common now Liz, apart from Scarborough that is....I used to live in Morwenstow and know of Rev.Hawker, indeed I have visited his cave several times in the cliff face.....
Thanks for the memories.
Karen @ Lavender and Lovage

Gerry Snape said...

thanks for the Cornish memory Liz...wehad a wonderful time again this year.

A Cuban In London said...

I've been and come. Cornwall was delightful. Stayed near Padstow and ejoyed everything, from a bike ride on the Camel trail to the delicious pastries sold in the little shops. Great experience. Will be writing about it soon.

Greetings from London.

Eggs on the Roof said...

I didn't know it had a name. I like to cook meat the same way - but the fact that it's a Cornish 'under-roast', rather than just a handy way of doing things, adds an extra drama to the whole procedure.