31 March: A Roman Festival and Two Great Poets

‘Cras amet qui numquam amavit quique amavit cras amet’ 

‘Tomorrow let him love he who has never loved and he who has loved, tomorrow let him love…’

From ‘Pervigillum Veneris ’ attributed to Tiberianus, 4th Century A.D.

The last day of March is the eve of the festival ‘Veneralia’ which celebrates Venus Verticordia – ‘Venus the changer of hearts’. We know about it from the poet Ovid and from an anonymous fourth century poem entitled ‘Pervigilium Veneris’ which describes both the feast and the spring season in Sicily. Veneralia was actually not about changing your heart's desire but rather about encouraging fidelity to one's lover.

The Veneralia ritual involved the bathing of a statue of a naked Venus by female worshipers, after which the goddess and her attendants were garlanded with her symbol plant - 'murtos' - the myrtle. Murtos was also the word Romans used to refer to your lady bits, and I bet you didn't learn that in your Latin class at school.

This is the famous Botticelli painting of Venus being born from the sea and showing a myrtle grove to the right hand side. The goddess is floating in on another of her symbols, the scallop shell. Venus is also known as stella maris - the star of the sea, and so is the Virgin Mary - their symbolism is closely connected and overlapping......

The poet Andrew Marvell was born today in 1621 and could have written his most famous poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ with Venus in mind. I wonder if he knew he was born on her feast day eve?

‘Had we but world enough and time, 
This coyness mistress were no crime.....
But at my back I always hear

Time's winged chariot hurrying near'

I have a very soft spot for Marvell.  He was born near my birthplace in East Yorkshire and became Member of Parliament for Hull in Cromwell’s Parliament. He managed to hold on to his integrity and his life during a time when the power in England was constantly shifting and he also helped to save the life of John Milton when Charles II threatened to execute the older poet for his support of Cromwell - so much for the Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1685 that I mentioned last month....


Finally, ten years to the day after Marvell's birth the greatest poet of the previous generation died. John Donne’s poems were mostly circulated anonymously in his lifetime. Given that he was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and many of his poems celebrate physical love that’s hardly surprising, but he’s never distasteful, even when writing about two lovers bitten by the same flea....

So I’ve been looking for a recipe that uses myrtle, and I turned to one of my favourite food books  ‘Honey from a Weed’ by Patience Gray. In the 1960s Gray and her sculptor lover travelled across the Mediterranean. He pursued his passion for beautiful marble, and she cooked and wrote and kept house in the very simplest conditions.  It’s a wonderful book and describes a peasant way of life that hardly exists any more. Gray says about myrtle 'it grows near the sea and was once sacred to Aphrodite' and she suggests the berries are used to stuff little quails.

The spring weather has been reminiscent of the Mediterranean lately so this feels really appropriate.

Roast quail with myrtle

If you can't get myrtle you can approximate the flavours by tearing up a bay leaf (preferably fresh) and crushing a few allspice berries, and if you can't get quail you might find poussin.

You will need 1 quail per person as a starter - I ordered them from my butcher, they came in trays of four. Take three myrtle berries and one peeled garlic clove per quail, plus olive oil and a lemon. Gray suggests that the quail are best wrapped in vine or fig leaves then cooked on a spit over a wood or charcoal fire, but she also gives the method below....

First turn off your smoke alarm. (She didn't actually say that, I don't think peasant huts in the Cyclades had them.)

Put the garlic and myrtle berries inside the birds, season and oil well. Heat a cast iron pan until very hot and put in the birds, turn them over every few minutes and after about 20 minutes you should have slightly charred but thoroughly cooked little birds. Serve with a squeeze of lemon, salad and good bread.

......Love's riddles are, that though thy heart depart,
It stays at home, and thou with losing savest it;
But we will have a way more liberal,
Than changing hearts, to join them; so we shall
Be one, and one another's all. 

From 'Love's Infiniteness' by John Donne (1572- 1631)

PS Today is also the anniversary of the death of Charlotte Bronte – but I didn’t fancy making gruel….

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