20th January: The Eve of St Agnes

‘St Agnes Eve – Ah bitter chill it was!
The owl for all his feathers was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass
And silent was the flock in woolly fold….’

Regular readers will know of my interest in obscure Saints, not because of their religious significance but because of the folklore traditions that have grown up around them.  Today is a prime example. It’s the Eve of St Agnes.

I love Keats, and his luscious poem about the Eve of St Agnes incorporates what ‘Feasts and Festivals’ is all about; folklore, tradition, literature and food!

St Agnes was a teenage martyr in Roman times. At the age of thirteen she refused to marry the son of a high-ranking Roman official saying she was already married to Jesus. She was sentenced to death as a Christian, but because the law did not permit the execution of virgins, she was dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. Because of her purity, all the men who approached her there were struck blind.

Agnes is usually depicted with a lamb, both as a symbol of her innocence but also as a pun on her name and she is the Patron Saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins and is one of the seven major female Saints of the Catholic Church. This is a detail from Harry Clarke's fantastic stained glass depiction of the Eve of St Agnes, it's in the Dublin City Gallery.

The Catholic Church still practices a traditional custom on the Feast of St Agnes. Two lambs are brought to the Vatican from the Abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome. The Pope blesses the lambs then on the Thursday of Holy Week, they are shorn and the wool is woven into a cloak.  When a new Archbishop is consecrated, the cloak is given to him as part of the inauguration ritual.

Traditionally, young girls undertook certain rituals on Saint Agnes' Eve in order to discover who they would marry. You fasted all day then you filled an eggshell with salt and ate it. If you had a dream about drinking from a vessel to quench your thirst, the vessel signified the station in life into which you would marry. Obviously dreaming about a golden cup was a good thing!

Keats's poem contains some wonderful imagery and is actually very sexy. Here is Keats in erotic mood - the heroine Madeleine is preparing for bed, her lover Porphyro steals into her room and watches her undress.

…Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees
Half-hidden like a mermaid in seaweed
Pensive awhile she dreams awake and sees
In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed….

This is Millais' take on the scene...

As Madeleine sleeps, Porphyro lays a table of luscious sweetmeats:

Of candied apple quince and plum and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates in argosy transferred
From Fez, and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarkand to cedared Lebanon.

So taking Keats as inspiration..(and using some Christmas left overs)

Frangipane tart with candied fruit and apricots

1x 7inch tart tin lined with foil

6 oz shortcrust pastry
4oz ground almonds
1oz chopped mixed peel
I crystallised pear and 1 crystallised fig
2 large eggs
2oz caster sugar
1tsp baking powder
6 apricot halves ( I used tinned)
2 drops bitter almond essence
1tsp orange flower water

Line the tin with the pastry - I deliberately didn't trim the edges. Mix together the ground almonds, candied peel, sugar, BP, eggs, almond essence and orange flower water until well blended and of a dropping consistency. I added a spoonful of the syrup from the tinned apricots.

Put the halved apricots on top of the pastry in the tin and spoon over the frangipane. Lay the crystallised fruit on top.

Bake at 160c for about 50 minutes. Take care it doesn't burn. When it has cooled a little, lift the tart out using the foil and serve it just warm on a lordly dish.

‘And they are gone: aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away….’

John Keats  (1795-1821)

1 comment:

Gerry Snape said...

super post...love the obscure saints!