The Easter Hare

The hare, call him scotart,
big-fellow, bouchart,
the O'Hare, the jumper,
the rascal, the racer....'

 From 'The Names of the Hare' Anonymous Middle English poem (trans Seamus Heaney)

During the month of April, probably at the full moon, the Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the fifth century celebrated the feast of the goddess they called ‘Eostre’.  Writing about three hundred years later the monk Bede related how this spring goddess gave her name to the month of ‘Ēosturmōnaþ’ – ‘Eostre’s month’. We know very little about her, but this is what Bede says:

‘Ēosturmōnaþ’ has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.’

German sources refer to the goddess as ‘Ostara’ and associate her with both the spring and the dawn. It all seems very likely to me; the goddess of the dawn is celebrated at the beginning of the growing season, the sun is higher in the sky, birds are pairing up and the world is waking up after the dark months of winter. 

The attendant spirit of Eostre was the hare and I just love hares. I’m ashamed to say that I also used to cook them, but I haven’t done so for years and now I’m not sure I could. Julius Caesar says that Celtic people had a taboo on eating hares and even now many country people won’t use them for food.

I’ve been reading a book by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson called ‘The Leaping Hare’. It contains everything you ever needed to know about hares - their peculiar March dancing and boxing habits, the way they chase aeroplanes, their association with fire, the clever ways they protect their young. What struck me very forcibly though, is that Evans and Thomson tell us that hares have been with us since the dawn of time and that hare myths exist in almost every culture from Buddhism to Hottentot.

 I took the photo of this leaping hare with chasing hound in the Roman baths in Bath.

Hares appear in the art of ancient Egypt and the hieroglyph for ‘to exist’ shows a seated hare over a ripple of water. They are a symbol of fecundity and sexiness, so if you ever see one in the corner of a painting it’s trying to tell you something, and they are associated strongly with the moon - the Saxon moon god had hare’s ears. In the several of the ancient churches on Dartmoor are mysterious mediaeval carvings  showing three hares chasing each other in a circle and this symbol has been traced back in time to the Dark Ages and right through Europe to the Silk Road and China. Hares are everywhere and always have been.

People used to think hares laid eggs because they often bear their young in the same fields as lapwings' nests and in Germany it is the Easter hare that lays the Easter eggs. To celebrate the Easter season Germans hang decorated hens eggs from the bushes in their gardens, like this:

At some point the beautiful, sexy, wild and fleet footed hare was cruelly transmuted into the fluffy, dull but safe Easter bunny, and the myth that hares laid eggs gave rise to the chocolate delight that is the Easter Egg.

Here's a delicious cake for Easter Day tea.

First make the stencil. I used a hare shaped biscuit cutter and the back of a cereal packet. You can also download free stencils from the internet. Cut the card the same diameter as the cake. Place your shapes centrally on the card and cut out carefully.

Eostre's Chocolate Cake

225g each of softened butter, sugar and SR flour
4 eggs
2 tablespoons cocoa and a teaspoon instant coffee
5 tablespoons boiling water
2 teaspoons baking powder

Icing sugar and sugar coated chocolate eggs.

Oven 180c. Two sandwich cake tins.

Grease the tins and line the bottoms with baking parchment

In a mixer or with an electric beater beat the sugar and butter together until white and fluffy. Mix the cocoa, coffee and hot water together.  Beat the eggs. Add the eggs, flour, BP and cocoa paste to the mixture all at once and mix well. Pout the batter into your two tins and bake for 20 minutes. Check they are springy on the top and remove. Do not over cook.

When the cakes are cool turn one cake over so the flat bottom becomes the top and sandwich the cakes together with chocolate butter icing or ganache.

Dust the top with cocoa and hold the stencil over the cake. Do not let it touch the cocoa. Hold steady and then sprinkle icing sugar over the shape like they do in coffee shops with your cappuchino. Place the eggs on the cake.

Only one other note - I considered using small chocolate eggs without sugar coating. Do not do this, otherwise it looks like something the hare might have produced that is not an egg.

'The timid hares throw daylight fears away
On the lanes road to dust and dance and play
The dabble in the grain by nought deterred
To lick the dewfall from the barley's beard...'

From 'Hares at Play' by John Clare

PS. After I originally wrote this I was telling my sister about it and she told me about a moonlit night when she was driving home across the Yorkshire Wolds. Her lights caught the eyes of hares in a field and she stopped the car. Very quietly she approached and the field was full of hares, she thinks about a hundred all told, they were dancing and boxing and having a wonderful time. The sort of thing one dreams of seeing and only a few of us ever have the privilege.

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)