25 December: Yule

Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing....
With the last year's brand
Light the new block, and....
Come while the log is tending.

From 'The Yule Log' by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

‘Yule’ is the midwinter festival that predated the Christian Christmas and was celebrated across the whole of northern Europe. Like so many other pagan festivities it was cleverly absorbed into the Christian tradition – or the other way round – in the 4th century when the date for the Nativity was chosen. The word ‘Yule’ has became synonymous with Christmas, but in the north of England where the Scandinavian influence still lingers, it was for centuries the more usual term for the season.

The Venerable Bede is the main source of information about many pre-Christian traditions and he tell us that the Anglo-Saxons called the weeks around the winter solstice ‘geola’ or ‘giuli' and that it was when the new year began. That’s logical when you think about it, the shortest day is the beginning of the upward curve to spring. In his treatise 'De temporum ratione' Bede also says the Anglo-Saxons celebrated divine motherhood or ‘modraniht’ at this time – that’s interesting...

There are a number of traditions associated with Yule, but I’ve been looking at the Yule Log. This is the large piece of wood that was burnt in the open fire of a house right across the holiday. It was most often of ash, in Devon it was actually referred to as the ‘ashen faggot’ and in fact it didn’t need to be one huge tree trunk-like piece, in poorer houses it was more often a number of pieces bound together with whippy twigs. When it was set alight, every time one of these ties burst, the cider bowl was passed round. The other tradition commonly associated with the Yule log, was that it was lit using a piece of charcoal left over from the previous year’s log as an obvious symbol of continuity and prosperity.

The log was sometimes called ‘The Yule Clog’, ‘The Yule Block’ or in Cornwall ‘The Yule Mock’. The origins of the tradition are obscure, it may be medieval or it may not, it may be a left over from an ancient pre-Christian tradition – or not. It may simply have arisen from the expedience of having enough fuel to cover the festive twelve days. The Cornish tradition is to strip the log of its bark and chalk onto it the image of a man representing the old year, which will then be consumed by the fire

Whatever its origin, the Yule Mock is a comforting image – a warm hearth at a dark time of year – family and friends gathered round – the cider bowl circulating. The demise of huge open hearths obviously has something to do with the ending of this particular festive habit but here’s the way to keep it alive, a Bûche de Noël !! This is of course the French equivalent of Christmas Cake first made in the late nineteenth century, when open fires were restricted in Paris.

My Bûche de Noël is a chocolate fatless sponge with a fresh cream and chestnut filling. There are lots of ways of decorating a bûche but I think the little meringue mushrooms you often see are a bit twee and I can't be doing with the business of cutting an end off to make a branch. So here’s my very OTT and grown up chocolate yule log.

Bûche de Noël

5 large eggs separated
150g caster sugar
60g good cocoa powder
200g sweetened chestnut puree (about half a tin)
Orange liqueur - or brandy or rum, I used Grand Marnier.
300ml whipping cream
100g good dark chocolate

Oven 180c
Swiss roll tin lined with baking parchment

Whisk the sugar and the egg yolks together until lighter in colour
Add the cocoa and whisk again until fully absorbed
Whisk the whites until stiff and fold a tablespoonful of whites through the cocoa mix to slacken it, then fold the rest in gently
Pour into the tin and bake for 20 minutes
It will rise but then fall when you take it out, don't worry.
Leave in the tin to cool.

Add the alcohol to the chestnut puree - you need to taste it and ensure you can detect the brandy or whatever, but not make the puree too runny. Whip the cream in another bowl until stiff.

Turn out the sponge onto a clean teacloth and remove the paper. Spread the chestnut puree over the sponge and then the cream. When it's evenly spread, roll up the sponge using the cloth and put it on a plate. Don't worry if it cracks - that only makes it look more log-like

Now dredge with icing sugar and drizzle with the melted dark chocolate. I then sprinkled with gold and silver pearls and edible gold powder.

It was fabulous.

Gud Jul x

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
Toll the ancient Yuletide carol,

Fa la la la la, fa la la la.
See the blazing Yule before us,

Fa la la la la

, fa la la la.
Strike the harp and join the chorus.

Fa la la la la, fa la la la.

Traditional Welsh Carol


Anonymous said...

I can vouch for the deliciousness of your buche de noel! Perhaps I'll try making one next year ...

And how is it that a good Welsh-born girl like me didn't know that 'Deck the Halls' was Welsh?? Although, having looked up the Welsh translation on Wikipedia, I think perhaps the English version is nicer.

"To the troubled, cold are the bills,
Which come during the holidays"

Fa la la, indeed.

Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

Merry Merry Christmas Liz xxx

Choclette said...

Fascinating as always Liz. The Yule log is something I've just taken for granted but knew little about. And your Buche de Noel, looks like a proper log that could keep the fires burning. I'm sure it will keep the body well fueled. 2013 is an exciting year for you with your book coming out. I look forward to it. Wishing you all the best for the New Year and hope sales are good.