20 March: The Vernal Equinox - 'Nowruz'




Like my heart's pain that has long missed its meaning,
the sun's rays robed in dark
hide themselves under the ground.
Like my heart's pain at love's sudden touch,
they change their veil at the spring's call
and come out in the carnival of colours,
in flowers and leaves.

From 'Fireflies' by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Regular readers will know of my slight obsession with calendars and solstices, so I’m not going to go off on that track again - but it is the Spring Equinox.  Winter is officially over and it’s time to do all those spring things: clean the house, take your winter coat to the dry cleaners, dig out your summer stuff and recycle the things you no longer want, clean out your cupboards, turn the mattress, book your summer holiday….

I love the very beginning of ‘Wind in the Willows’ when the dutiful and shy mole feels the siren call of a spring day when he should be doing his spring-cleaning.

‘Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.’

Its ‘spirit of divine discontent’ eh? How true. There is surely something in the air that makes you restless on a fresh spring day.  As Chaucer says – ‘When in April the sweet showers fall….then people long to go an pilgrimages and palmers long to see the stranger strands of far-off saints...’

So I went searching for spring festivals and came up with ‘Nowruz’. It’s the Zoroastrian New Year and it’s probably the oldest continually celebrated religious festival in the world.  Zoroastrianism dates back to the Bronze Age, and its founder Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) is thought to have lived about 1600BC, probably in Ancient Persia where the religion originates.  It’s most famous adherents now are the Parsees of India and the Parsees most famous son was Freddy Mercury of the band ‘Queen’. Who says this blog is nothing if not informative?

Anyway, ‘Nowruz’ – the most important Zoroastian Festival is celebrated at the Vernal Equinox and it’s been going for more than 3,000 years. And as we have seen many, many times – what do people do when they want to celebrate?  They build a bonfire - so Nowruz is a fire festival. It’s widely celebrated in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban banned it, and there are lots of special foods associated with it. One of the most common is ‘Haft Mewa’ – called ‘Khoshaf’ elsewhere in the Middle East. I couldn’t resist making it because it involves one of my favourite things in the whole world - Hunza Apricots.

I love apricots, but the little sun dried Hunzas are the best thing ever. They only grow in the Hunza Valley, near the north-west frontier of Pakistan and Afghanistan and they were really difficult to get during the worst days of the war. About 80 tonnes are exported to Europe every year, which isn’t a lot, so I buy them whenever I see them.  Haft Mewa involves seven main ingredients (but see below), four fruits and three nuts. It’s delicious and healthy, and no trouble at all, you don’t even cook it.

Haft Mewa
Dried apricots – preferably Hunzas
Prunes
Dried cherries
Raisins
Pomegranate seeds (optional)
Almonds
Pistachios
Walnuts
Rosewater and/or orange flower water

You can vary the fruits – and the nuts, but the method is simple. Cover the dried fruit with water, add the flower essences to taste, blanch the nuts (I shirked blanching walnuts) add them to the fruit. Cover and refrigerate for about three days until the fruit has become well soaked and the fruit sugars have turned the fragrant water to syrup. Eat with thick yoghurt.

I cannot tell you how good this is. 

'On a day when the wind is perfect,

the sail just needs to open and the world is full of beauty.
Today is such a day.'

 Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

5 comments:

Choclette said...

Ahh, Zarathustra. I've come across him quite recently, but annoyingly can't remember in what context. I don't think I knew the founded the oldest religion still practised today though, so very interesting.

Your dish looks like a bowl of jewels, superb. I was trying to identify what the fruits on top were and couldn't figure it out. Well now I know. I adore Hunzas too, but I've only every eaten them straight out of the packet. This looks like something I need to try - have to track down some hunzas first.

Pete Thompson said...

You're right - it is informative. I've never heard of Nowruz before but the recipe looks wonderful. That lovely passage from Wind in the Willows is one I've loved from childhood -it always gives me butterflies in the stomach. I'm sitting here now with a copy which Grandma Thompson gave to my brother Chris and which, for some reason, I seem to have ended up with. Wonderful!

Liz Woods said...

Thanks both...and my copy of W in the W was also given to me by Grandma Thompson - it's dated Christmas 1960 - I was not quite seven.

Choclette said...

I was in Totnes on Thursday so with Hunzas very much on my mind, I bought some. Went to put them away when I got home, only to find I already had a packet - didn't dare look at the date label.

Liz Woods said...

There's a great Tamasin Day Lewis recipe for a hunza pudding with hazelnuts...