25th January: Holly Holy Day

Unhappy! shall we never more 
That sweet militia restore, 
When gardens only had their towers, 
And all the garrisons were flowers; 
When roses only arms might bear, 
And men did rosy garlands wear?

'A Garden, Written after the Civil Wars' by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Once upon a time here must have been hundreds of local festivals when people commemorated a  saint or event that had a particular meaning for their village or town. Some of these festivals remain or have been revived and Holly Holy Day is one such.

We're in Nantwich in Cheshire. The 'wich' suffix means that there is a salty connection - it's an Old English word for brine, so salt plays an important part in the dish I've chosen to make below. The festival however isn't a salty one, it harks back to the dark days of the English Civil War.

Nantwich, or 'Namptwiche' as it was at the time, holds a strategic position on the route west from the Midlands to Chester where Royalist military reinforcements were waiting to disembark from Ireland. Like my own home city of Hull, Nantwich was a Parliamentary town and in late 1643 the King's army had held it under siege for over six weeks. 5,000 Parliamentary forces under Sir Thomas Fairfax marched across from Hull and engaged 3,500 Royalists in battle. They fought in the fields west of Nantwich for no more than two hours on the afternoon of the 25th January 1644. A number of Royalist commanders were captured and the siege was lifted. The people of Namptwiche wore sprigs of holly in their hats to celebrate their liberation and they have continued to do so every 25th January for the last 370 years.

I've been wondering why they chose holly? My best guess is that during the siege they couldn't leave the town to collect holly and mistletoe as they would have done for their Christmas festivities, so once the siege was lifted they made haste out to the countryside and gathered sprigs to wear instead. Well...maybe.

These days Holly Holy Day is marked by the laying of wreaths to those who died and then the enthusiasts of the Sealed Knot carry out a huge re-enactment of the Battle of Namptwiche. Everyone in the town turns out to see the mock battle, the street stalls and entertainers and it is a very jolly affair. Here they are lifting the siege outside WH Smith and Sons.

Cheshire of course is famous for salt, which has been mined there for centuries. So I've made a dish with salt as an integral part. It's Seville orange time, so this colourful fish dish incorporates both piquant ingredients. The sauce is actually of Peruvian origin, but I did tinker a bit. There were beautiful gurnard in my lovely little fish shop this week, but you could use other fish. The sauce would be a good match for other strongly flavoured fish such as mackerel or pollack or even coley.

Red Gurnard Picante.

For 2

One gurnard each.
50g chorizo - I used the hard sort you buy in the supermarket - it's really handy for perking up lots of dishes
2 cloves garlic
2 red peppers, grilled and skinned (I keep a jar ready in the fridge)
2 tomatoes
Juice of one Seville orange - or of a half sweet orange and half a lemon
Olive oil
Parsley if you have it
Coarse salt

Fillet the gurnards and remove any stray bones. I bought a pair of fish tweezers last year. They are the best thing ever. Having them has transformed our fish eating - no more bones!

Lay the fillets in a dish and sprinkle with salt, leave for an hour.

To make the picante sauce, chop the chorizo and fry it lightly in a little oil, until its own oil start to run out. Add the garlic to the pan and fry gently. Now add the sliced peppers, the chopped tomatoes and the citrus juice. Heat together for about five minutes until the juices have started to reduce. You can do this well ahead of time.

Rinse the salt off the fish and pat dry. Lay the fillets on top of the sauce and cover the pan with a lid or foil. Cook over a medium heat for about 4-5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with crusty bread.

It was really, really tasty.

...In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
vital light
our food....

From 'Ode to Salt' by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

1 comment:

sprhoyle said...

Liz, a wonderful post. The poems are just right. It reminded me that Andrew Marvell is a poet I have always meant to learn some more about.... And the recipe looks delicious. As you know, I am in Sri Lanka at the moment, and I intend showing it to my friend here. I think she will like it. I know I will, and will look again when back home.