The Wednesday of Holy Week - Spy Wednesday


'Yet each man kills the thing he loves
  By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
  Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
  The brave man with a sword!'

 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Well here I am again and like so many of the rest of us I’m in lock down. So why not revisit the blog I thought? Why not indeed. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world and have my garden and my books for company - not to mention my husband who seems to have taken up residence in the garage for the duration. He emerges for meals and to watch the news but that’s about it. I remind myself that he is just trying to get through - the same as the rest of us. As spring marches inexorably forwards, the days are blending into one, so maybe it’s time for the occasional new blog post as a way of marking time until life returns to normality.

Idle curiosity led me to look for the significance of today and I discovered that the Wednesday of Easter week is 'Spy Wednesday' - which is not a celebration of duplicity but a remembrance of the day that Jesus was betrayed by Judas.

I knew a spy once - someone who during the Cold War had spied for the Soviets in exchange for money to sustain a lifestyle that soon betrayed him. I met him some years after he was released from prison and I liked him. He was intelligent and witty. The sort of person who is good value at a dinner party - perfect spy material.  Just morally bankrupt.

The story of the betrayal of Jesus doesn't need repeating here, but reminding myself of it I looked up spikenard. The betrayal was prompted by Judas's indignation that the woman called Mary had used expensive oil of spikenard to bathe Jesus's feet. There are various translations of the original and the oil might have been spikenard which is an Ayurvedic plant from the Far East, or it might have been simply have been lavender. We don’t know.

What I have in plenty at the moment is fresh nettles and sorrel. So I’ve made soup. Nettles for the sting of betrayal, sorrel for the bitterness of regret.

Nettle and Sorrel  Soup

1 leek, carrot and largish potato
I litre vegetable or chicken stock - I used Marigold Bouillon
Several handfuls of greens. I used a mixture of sorrel and nettles. Spinach would be fine.
Cream - optional

I blitzed the leek carrot and potato in my food processor and then softened them gently in the butter for a few minutes. I added the greens and wilted them down, then poured in the hot stock and simmered for about twenty minutes. Then I blitzed it again with my stick blender. Taste it and adjust the seasoning and if you wish, add the cream.

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

From 'The Waste Land' by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

A New Blog


It's been a while but 'Feasts and Festivals' is still here for you to enjoy and refer to and I hope you find what you are looking for. However, life moves on and I have a new blog on Wordpress. It's called 'The Lane of Evening Lingerings'.

Here's where you can find it.

Similar philosophy, different type of content....

A Little Holiday

Dear Friends

I'm going to take a little blog holiday. We're moving house and my Mum needs a bit more care than she used to. Rather than be intermittent with my posts and it all turning into something of a chore. I'm going to lay the blog aside for a few weeks.

 I will return! In the meantime -  all the old posts are still here for your enjoyment.

Love and Peace


2nd February: Candlemas and Groundhog Day

'Where, woman, is thine offering-
The debt of law and love?'
'My Babe a tender nestling is,
And I the mother-dove.' 

'A Pair Of Turtle-Doves: The Purification'  by John Bannister Tabb (1845-1909)

What I remember of Candlemas as a child is my Dad telling me that today was the day hibernating animals came out and checked the temperature. Depending on whether the day was fair or not, the weather for the next few weeks was determined. That was before either of us had ever heard of Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil. The tradition is a Northern European one and specifically German, which in England probably means it has Anglo-Saxon origins.

Of course there are no groundhogs in Europe, so the American legend must have started with another animal, another sort of hog - a hedgehog. There are so many wonderful folk names for the prickly beast of the hedge bottom. We called them 'Pricky Hodgsons' in my family, but hedgehogs are also called hedgepigs, or urchins and of course Mrs Tiggywinkle.

The first official 'Ground Hog Day' was celebrated on the 2nd February, 1886 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The German migrants to Pennsylvania brought their tradition with them. The day was decreed a holiday by the local paper - 'The Punxsutawney Spirit'. The editor wrote, "Today is Groundhog Day and up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow." The following year, the first Groundhog Day celebration took place at Gobbler's Knob, and the crowd that gathered there named themselves "The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club." When a groundhog miraculously appeared, the club named him 'Phil, the Punxsutawney Groundhog'.

There are a number of calendar points in the year when it is traditionally supposed that the weather for the next few weeks can be forecast. St Swithun is the most famous, but Candlemas is another. Here's the rhyme.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

In an agricultural community it's not surprising that farmers tried every method they could to predict the weather. Ploughing, planting and harvest depended on it. But there is probably a reason that Candlemas was chosen as a predictive day. It marks the beginning of the second half of winter because is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That's why it was a pre-Christian festival, because it was already a special day for those earlier people whose religion was determined by the skies. Before the Reformation all churches celebrated the Feast of the Purification, - as Candlemas is properly called. They marked it by candlelit processions, the practice itself echoing the earlier Roman practices of purification which were commonly held in February.

The day celebrates the presentation in the Temple of Mary the Mother of Jesus and it was not uncommon for women in the Anglican tradition to be 'churched' right up until the 1960s. My Grandmother insisted my Mother was churched after I was born, in case the fairies got her - or me. I found this beautiful painting whist researching this post. Isn't she wonderful?

'Candlemas Day' by Marianne Stokes (1855-1927)

Anyway the second half of winter begins today, but spring is evident in the shops and in the gardens. I saw my first snowdrop yesterday and my local green grocer has both blood oranges and the first tender forced rhubarb. I put them together.

Rhubarb and Blood Orange Compôte

This is not even a recipe. Chop some forced rhubarb into lengths and put it in a shallow roasting tin with the juice and rind of a blood orange. Add a couple of tablespoons of sugar and roast in a hot oven until the rhubarb is soft. Serve warm. You could have this with creme fraiche or cream, but actually the juice was so wonderful l preferred it as it came. It was wonderfully fragrant and aromatic.

The days of the future stand in front of us
Like a line of candles all alight -
Golden and warm and lively little candles.
The days that are past are left behind,
A mournful row of candles that are out...

From 'Candles' by C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933)

There are lots of traditions associated with February 2nd such as St. Brigid, Imbolc and Candlemas and I've written about all those before.

Here's the link


30th January: Chinese New Year's Eve

O fan of white silk,
clear as frost on the grass-blade,

You also are laid aside. 

'Fan-Piece, For Her Imperial Lord' by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

I was born on Chinese New Year's Day and so narrowly missed being a dragon - very auspicious, and am actually a snake - good wife material (about which I am not qualified to comment). Anyway I always note Chinese New Year, which in 2014 is a couple of weeks earlier than it was the year I slithered into the world.

Like the New Year festivities of other calendars around the world, the Chinese New Year lasts several days and there are many similarities between it and New Year festivals in other cultures. You clean your house, pay your debts, get the family together, play games, make resolutions, eat too much...drink too much. We're all the same under the skin and we all like a party now and again.

But do you know the Chinese New Year legend of the Kitchen God? I didn't. Here it is, and here he is.

There was once a rich farmer married to an exemplary wife called Guo. She was a wonderful cook, thrifty, a good housekeeper and everything that any mortal man might desire in his life companion. The farmer's land was fertile and with the help of the good wife, his riches and his luck increased year on year. But Guo's husband was not the faithful kind and not satisfied with what the gods had granted him. Despite his wife's many virtues he strayed and he left her for a younger model, the pretty Lady Li.

Time passed and the farmer lost touch with his good wife Guo, who moved far away. But after two years of extravagance and dissipation by him and his new girlfriend there was nothing left and of course the pretty Lady Li deserted her lover for another.

Serves the bad husband right you might think.  The legend dates from the second century BC - but it's an eternal story.

Anyway the bad husband was left a beggar and he became a tramp, getting his meals where he could and roaming the countryside in rags. He begged at kitchen doors for mouldy grain and scraps. One day, fainting with hunger and sickness he found himself in a warm kitchen where delicious smells of cooking from the bright stove filled the air. He thought he had died and gone to heaven, but the kitchen maid assured him that her mistress always brought in beggars that they might have a good meal and dry clothes.  

"I must thank your mistress" said the man.

"You can - because here she comes now" answered the maid.

The bad husband looked up and saw his former wife coming down the path to the house! He leapt up and looked for somewhere to hide, because he was so ashamed of how his unfaithfulness had reduced him.  Just as Guo came into the room, her husband leapt into the stove. Guo was distraught. She tried to save him, but it was too late. He was turned to smoke and ashes.

But that is not the end of the story. When the bad husband arrived in heaven, the Jade Emperor looked at him as he trembled with fear before the throne of the Almighty. 

"You know you did wrong" said the Jade Emperor, "and because of that, I will give you the position of Kitchen God" 

And now, every New Year, one week before the turn of the year, the Kitchen God (whose earthly name was Zhang), reports to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of everyone in the house. And every house keeps a little shrine for the Kitchen God to live in, that he might be warm and cosy whilst he keeps an eye out. 

So there you go. You never know who is watching you.

There are many customs associated with Chinese New Year. Eating a whole fish symbolises completeness and red is for luck. We have both.

Baked Red Mullet with Chinese flavours.

I red mullet per person, gutted and scaled but left whole.

Carrot, celery, spring onions, garlic, red chilli and fresh ginger all finely diced or shredded. A small handful for each fish.

White sesame seeds - a couple of teaspoons and a few slices of lemon or lime.

Make a marinade of 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tsp sesame oil, 2 tbs white wine, and a tablespoon of light flavoured vegetable oil. 

Put the fish on a foil covered tray, sprinkle with the vegetables and pour over the marinade. Wrap tightly and leave for an hour or so. Bake at 190c for about 20 minutes.

Unwrap and smell those aromas! Sprinkle with a little fresh coriander if you wish. I didn't.

Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground.

Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I am home. 

'Quiet Night Thoughts' by Li Po (701-762AD)

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)

Frost Fairs on the Thames

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num'd with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done.

Modern inscription carved under Southwark Bridge (Based on eighteenth century handbills)

We’re having some pretty shocking weather here. The Atlantic storms are sweeping in one after the other, bringing torrential rain and high winds. On the other side of the pond however there is a great freeze. So that got me thinking about the things people do to amuse themselves when bad weather disrupts everyday life.

From the Middle Ages right through to the early nineteenth century, the River Thames in London would sometimes freeze over – twenty four occasions are recorded in six hundred years – about once in a generation. Without the Embankment the river was more sluggish than it is today and the nineteen piers of old London Bridge also slowed up the flow. The boatmen who made their living by ferrying people and goods across the river were temporarily out of pocket so they often set up booths and stalls on the ice selling all manner of goods, street food and souvenirs. These were often printed leaflets and ballads. Little presses were set up and in the days before photographs people could buy something to show they were there.

You that walk here, and do desyn to tell
Your children's children what this year befell
Go print your names and take a dram within
For such a year as this, has seldom been seen. 


These were strictly unofficial fairs – a proper fair need a charter, but the Frost Fairs were immensely popular. The unlicensed fun included skittle alleys, gambling booths and closed off tents for the sort of frolics better conducted under downy covers.

John Evelyn the diarist described the Frost Fair of 1608:

'Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes,(skates) a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water.'

That sounds like a lot of fun.

London like most cities was full of street hawkers and traders, the fairs meant that suddenly there was a captive market of excited people with a few pennies in their pockets, so buying street food was an important part of the fun. We know some of the things that were sold would be moulded gingerbread and spiced buns – traditional British fairground treats. Then there would no doubt be London specialties like jellied eels and in the nineteenth century pies and mash.  When the frost was particularly prolonged, sooner or later there would be a huge roasting spit set up. An ox, sheep or pig would be roasted whole. ‘Lapland Lamb’ was popular!

There was of course drink and it wasn’t all alcohol. The nearby coffee houses set up outposts selling hot chocolate and coffee and there would be mulled wine, cider and ale. On at least one occasion the ale froze and had to be sold by weight in chunks!

 ‘...folk do tipple without fear to sink 
More liquor than the fish beneath do drink' 

Iron skates were introduced from the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century but even before that boys tied specially shaved animal bones to the bottom of their boots in order to propel themselves across the ice at great speed.

Of course there were often disasters.

In January 1789, melting ice dragged at a ship anchored to a riverside inn, pulling the building down and crushing five people to death. There are many records of coaches being submerged and even the whole fair disappearing overnight.

This winter marks the hundredth anniversary of the very last Frost Fair. The 1814 Frost Fair commemorated above, was the last to be held after alterations to the river bank and bridges made the river flow more quickly. This was much to the delight of the warehouse and ship owners around the Upper Pool of London who were besieged by the ice when the river froze over and so couldn’t unload their goods.  The building of additional bridges meant the demise of the ferry trade and as we have seen before, Victorian morality meant that fairs in general were definitely to be suppressed.

So all we have are some wonderful images and a few souvenirs – and we can still make the food!

There were about 600 pie sellers in London in the seventeenth century. The men sold meat pies and jellied eels and women tended to sell fruit pies, dumplings and in the summer, fresh strawberries.

I've made two apple dumplings.

2 medium sized dessert apples
2 teaspoons soft butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
4 heaped tsp soft brown sugar.
10 oz approx shortcrust pastry
1 egg.

Make a paste of the butter, sugar and spices. Roll out the pastry. Peel and core the apples.
Dab the spice paste over the apples and in the hole made by removing the core. Wrap each apple in pastry and trim off the excess. Make leaves for decoration and brush the pastry with beaten egg.

Bake for about an hour until golden brown. Serve warm with cream.


Blow, blow, thou winter wind 
Thou art not so unkind 
As man's ingratitude; 
Thy tooth is not so keen, 
Because thou art not seen, 
Although thy breath be rude. 

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly: 
Most friendship if feigning, most loving mere folly: 
Then heigh-ho, the holly! 
This life is most jolly.

Extract from 'Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind' in 'As You Like It' (2.vii) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 

It's also the Feast of St Hilary this week and there's an earlier post about that with a warming soup.

St Hilary and a warming soup

Stay cosy. X