September 29th: Michaelmas

'The mind is its own place and in itself

Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

What matter where, if I be still the same,

And what I should be, all but less then he

Whom Thunder hath made greater?'

From 'Paradise Lost' Book 1, line 254-8, by John Milton (1608-1674)

Together with St Piran and St Petroc, the Archangel Michael is one of the patron Saints of Cornwall. In Celtic regions St Michael is often associated with hilltops and St Michael’s Mount has been a holy place probably since there have been holy places.

‘The Mount’ as it is referred to locally, has had a number of names. In Classical times it was probably the island know as ‘Ictis’ the legendary source of tin from the west, in Cornish it is called ‘Karrek Loos y’n Koos’ meaning the ‘grey rock in the woods’, an indication of the changes of sea level that the coast of Cornwall has witnessed over the millenia.

St Michael is supposed to have had a heavenly battle with Satan in the sky over The Mount and the one of the stones that was hurled in the fight landed at Helston, giving the town its name – Hell-stone.The legendary rock is apparently built into the wall of The Angel Hotel. I think the tale is more likely to be told by those coming out of The Angel, than by those going in…

So St Michael’s Mount is one of those enchanting places where myth, legend and history have become so intertwined that the boundaries between them are barely distinguishable.

We do know for a fact, that for centuries The Mount was an important market on an ancient trading route. The market was a source of products from all over the known world; oils, silks and spices came from the Mediterranean, tin and precious metals, furs, wool and hunting dogs went the other way. This market may even be the original source of the beautifully scented narcissus flowers native to the Mediterranean area and now regarded as indigenous on the offshore islands of Cornwall.

St Michael’s Mount market also features in the legend of ‘Tristan and Iseult’ which was first written down about 1170. The author Béroul describes how the hermit Ogrin visits St Michael’s Mount to buy fine wool, silks and linen cloth for Iseult, so that she may be suitably clad for her return to her betrothed husband, King Mark. In order that Iseult should travel in a style fit for a Queen, Ogrin also buys her a beautiful palfrey with a golden harness for her journey to King Mark’s court.

In 1067 the Benedictine Monastery of Mont St Michel in Normandy gave its support to William the Conqueror, and he rewarded the monks with property in his new realm. The Benedictines erected a monastery and church on the Cornish Mount, which was consecrated in 1144, and the Mount became a major pilgrimage destination. It was also a significant stopping point on the network of pilgrim routes across Europe, in particular for pilgrims making their way to Santiago di Compostella from Wales and Ireland. This route from St Ives to St Michaels Mount is now a designated footpath, way-marked with the symbolic pilgrims’ scallop shell. So the ancient trading route still survives although these days it’s back packers and dog walkers, rather than Celtic traders and pilgrims.

On the top of the Mount is a precipitous stone chair; to sit on it you have to hang your legs over the steep drop. When a marriage takes place on the island the newly weds are supposed to race to the chair, the one to sit in it first will then have dominion over the other for the duration of the marriage! It’s a very stiff climb, the victor probably deserves the prize.

So, it’s St Michael’s Day tomorrow - Michaelmas. As well as naming the town of Helston, St Michael’s celestial fight with the Devil caused Satan to fall to earth on a bramble bush, thereby making the eating of blackberries after the 29th September inadvisable because the Devil has cursed and spat on them – or worse.

To counteract all this devilish activity the Michaelmas recipe has to be that culinary marriage made in heaven - bramble and apple pie. Just ensure you picked the blackberries before the 29th.

Extra Rich Bramble and Apple Pie

Shortcrust pastry made with 250g each of plain and self raising flour and 125g each of butter and lard
4 apples peeled, sliced and lightly stewed with half the quantity of sugar below (I used tart eating apples which kept their shape.)
250g blackberries picked over for spiders and washed.
1 teaspoon cornflour
100g sugar, plus a little extra to sprinkle.
1 egg or a spoonful of cream
Knob of butter (optional)
Enamel pie dish
Oven 180c.

Stew the apples gently with half the sugar, cool.

Divide the pastry into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. Roll out and line the pie dish with the smaller portion. Put the stewed apples on top of the pastry.

Toss the blackberries in the cornflour and put them on top of the apple, sprinkle with the rest of the sugar.

Top with the pastry lid, crimp the edge and make two little cuts in the top for the steam, you can make pastry leaves if you have some off cuts. Brush the pie with the egg or the cream and bake for 35– 40 minutes. Keep and eye on it and cover with foil if it is getting too brown.

Now do my Grandma’s trick. Take the pie out of the oven and let it cool just a little. Then very gently put a sharp thin wide-bladed knife or a spatula between the lid and the bottom of the pie and ease it off all the way round, but don’t remove it. Raise the lid at one side and sneak a knob of butter on top of the hot fruit. Let the lid down again. (You don’t have to do this!)

Serve with cream.

'Now Ogrin, having left the lovers in the Hermitage, hobbled upon his crutch to the place called The Mount, and he bought ermine there and fur and cloth of silk and purple and scarlet, and a palfrey harnessed in gold that went softly, and the folk laughed to see him spending upon these the small moneys he had amassed so long; but the old man put the rich stuffs upon the palfrey and came back to Iseult.'

From 'Tristan and Iseult' by the 12c Norman poet Béroul translated by Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953)


Grazing Kate said...

Comments are working today. We're both blackberry-minded at the moment. And I was wondering why old Lucifer had such a problem with blackberries....and now I know! Looks delicious and you put me to shame - for my last few sweet pastry recipes have been using supermarket ready made cases (but the Sainsbury's ones are surprisingly good!)

Gerry Snape said...

Oh how I love your Cornish posts! We went past St.Michael's Mount in August on our way back from Minack. It looked stunning.
But I shall be making that pie for evening meal with the girls today. What a lovely autumn!

A Trifle Rushed said...

I love your grandmother's trick, and your pastry sounds delicious, I like the idea of combining two flours.

Liz said...

My Mum always makes pastry like this - it's delicious..