Thursday, 18 December 2014

Christmas Past III

Food, Glorious Food by Irene Soper

November the 26th really sees the start of the preparations for Christmas in the New Forest.  For that is the traditional date on which the Gypsies are allowed to start picking holly to sell at local markets and to make wreaths.  Already they have filled their sacks with moss fathered from the boggy paths on the side of the hill above Abbots Well.  This moss is used in the foundations of wreaths.  One old Gypsy lady living in the village can always be seen at that time of year colourfully dressed in a long skirt, short coat with flowered apron and headscarf, pushing a pram overflowing with holly towards the town.

Our small local Forest town Fordingbridge is a throng of activity as the festive season progresses.  Outside the butchers shop hang rows of hares, pheasants and turkeys.  Lighted Christmas trees shine above every shop and in the square, people gather to sing traditional carols around the bigger lit tree.  Back in the village the carole singers find their way along the dark lanes by the light of a lantern on a long pole.  At one time carol singers on Christmas Eve were given a warming spiced drink.  The Christmas Wassail Bowl was usually composed of a strong ale, the froth of roasted apples, cloves, cinnamon, and a grate of nutmeg, ginger and brown sugar.

Through the open doorway of the village church comes the sound of more carols sung, this time to the accompaniment of the local silver band.  Approaching the church, our pathway is gilded by the glowing colours of a stained glass window.

Inside a huge Christmas tree stands shining with coloured lights and cascades of gold and silver tinsel.  Every seat is filled and after the service coffee and sandwiches are served in the adjacent hall where everyone can meet and discuss the coming festive season.

On Christmas Eve the kitchen is a very busy place.  Although the cake and puddings have been made for several weeks, there are still the mince pies to make, the chestnut stuffing to prepare, the trifle to make and the cake to decorate.

It was once the custom in the old farmhouses to serve a dish called Frumenty for breakfast at Christmas-time:


One dish of crushed whole wheat, sugar, spice and raisins and skimmed new milk, simmered in a jar in the oven, or at the back of the stove overnight.  It can be eaten hot or cold.

On the farmsteads, it is possible a fat capon was served for Christmas dinner, and most likely in some more remote cottages a joint of venison would grace the table at the Festive season.

After a traditional Christmas lunch in the middle of the day, only a light tea was wanted.  This was usually eaten around an open fire, and was probably just a sweet.


Half a pound of macaroons, six penny sponge cakes (trifle sponges), one ounce of powdered sugar, raisin wine, two ounces of raisins and two pints of custard.

Crumble the macaroons and sponge cakes into a large glass dish, mix with the sugar and raisins and saturate them thoroughly with the wine.  Prepare the custard and pour over the whole of the above, stirring gently to mix perfectly.  After it is cold, garnish the surface with blanched sweet almonds and glace cherries, and serve from the dish . . .

Taken from "A Hampshire Christmas" compiled by Sara Tiller.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Just sometimes - a gleam of pure green (!!!)

With a nod to Blackadder in the title  . . .

Isn't it gorgeous? Such an intense patch of colour to brighten the bleakest of winter days . . .

Back to Christmas themes tomorrow.

Christmas past II

Extract from "A West Country Christmas":

"In Somerset, it is recorded that on Christmas Eve the festivities would include a feast of hot cakes and nuts, washed down with a drink made up of mulled or warmed ale and spice roast apples.  The cake found favour in Cornwall too, so we learn from the English Illustrated Magazine for December 1903: 'In days gone by, every Cornish housewife provided "the Christmas" or the Christmas cake for her household.  This was a small saffron or currant cake for presentation on Christmas Eve, to every member of the family and to each guest and the custom was for everybody to taste everybody else's cake by way of good fellowship.  This practice is nearly out of fashion but was in evidence last year in some cottage homes near Redruth.'

Decorations formed as much a part of Christmas in times gone by as they do now.  Mistletoe, for instance, can be traced back to the Druids, who were convinced that the plant had magical properties.  A parasite chiefly found on oak and apple trees, the Druids called it a "Curer of all Ills".  They considered that the trees on which it grew were sacred, and that the birds which visited their branches were messangers from the gods.  When mistletoe was required for a religious ceremony, it was gathered with great care by a priest, who used a golden sickle to remove it.

Devonians believe that their county was cursed by ancient Druid fathers, who had decreed that mistletoe should not grow there.  There is no record to explain this believe but there is an account of a gentleman who possessed an orchard, one half of which lay in Devon, and the other half in Somerset, the division of the two counties being marked by a deep ditch.  On the Devon side of the ditch, the apple trees were free of mistletoe, whereas on the Somerset side the parasite grew in great abundance.  Every effort that he made to cultivate it on the trees in Devon failed.

                                                   *                                 *                            *

Christmas ws not always remembered with fondness.  Here is Martha's take on it (she lived with her husband Ned at Whiddon Down.  She was asked, does she look forward to Christmas as much as the children obviously do? :

Well, I do and I don't.  Us don't really like Christmas.  Something always goes wrong in our house when 'tis Christmas.  It has done ever since we've had the children small, you know.  One Christmas I remember I said, 'Put the turkey in the oven.'  Us done our work, then went to church, and then come home and had our dinner.  Then I helped out with the Christmas pudding.  Well, there us was sitting around in the kitchen, eating our Christmas pudding, and enjoying it because it was a beautiful recipe of my old mother's, and suddenly one of the boys starated to cry.  I said to Father, 'There's something wrong with that boy.'  I said, 'Look at him.  Get over and pat him on the back.'  So Father went over and give the boy a good pat on the back and the boy went a bit purple and spluttered and managed to tell us that he'd swallowed the sixpence!

Then I remembered another year, when things didn't seem too bad and I thought, 'Now this is better, this is going alright, this is.'  Us had got through the day pretty well.  Us had had tea, and then us went in front room, you do that Christmas night don't ye?  You light the fire and it smokes all day - it doesn't burn right until it's time to go to bed - but you sit there with your eyes watering and stick it out when all of a sudden one of the boys started to cry again.  I thought, 'There you are!  I thought that it was going too good to be true.'  The boy kept pointing to his ear so I said to father, 'Get on and have a look in the boy's ear.;  Well, he lit a candle and nearly set fire to the boy!  I swaid, 'Why don't you go in the kitchen and get the flashlight?'  So he come in with the flashlight and looked in the boy's ear.  'Cor Mother,' he said, 'You'll never guess what I've seed.  You want to look in the little boy's ear.'  So I did.  I took the torch out of his hand and looked in the boy's ear and, to tell you the truth, I nearly passed out.  Do you know when I looked in that boy's ear, there was an eye looking at me.  It was only the eye off his teddy bear, but you have a glass of sherry at Christmas time and look in somebody's ear and see an eye!  It don't half give you a turn!'

I think she must have had more than the one glass!!!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Time for Christmassy thoughts

The lane going up past our top field on a snowy day in 2010.

I thought I would blow the dust off a couple of Christmas books I have, and share some Christmas customs and folklore with you.

I am a Hampshire Hog, born and bred (for all that my roots are in the West Country), so I will start with some extracts from A Hampshire Christmas, compiled by Sara Tiller.

John Arlott, "the voice of Cricket" was a Hampshire lad, born in Basingstoke on 25th February 1914.  Here are a few of his memories from Christmas past . . .

"Again, Christmas shop smells were more vivid 45 years ago (this in the 1920s I think, that he was remembering).  It is doubtful if there was a single refrigerator in all Basingstoke and some of the odours from frozen vegetables or sheerly rotten food were utterly offensive.  But a grocer's shop smelt of grocery = his goods were not tucked mutely away in cellophane wrapping, but displayed bodly, to be seen - and smelt - in the large.  he sold cheese and you could smell it.  Gorgonzola was a special Christmas item - and it was Gorgonzola, not Danish blue - and not a grocer but was ready with his joke about it 'talking'.  An assistant would turn and pull open a drawer and the smell of cinnamon, or nutmet, ginger or cardamom, cloves or mace, allspice or carraway floated out into the medley of the air.  The high, brassy coffee-mill threw out its working smell far across the street; yellow and carbolic soap formed a stern background and the gentle sugars of the dried fruit were clear to the sdweet-toothed young.  Dates and figs - new after the war - appeared in heavily squashed mystery, their novelty and sweetness over-riding any suggestion of nausea at the stories that the Arabs trod them into the boxes with their bare feet.

Bakers in those days baked: they did not merely sell goods cooked a day - and forty miles - away.  The shop was full of the warm smell of new bread, soft as foam, and irresistible to the picking fingers of boyhood.  The reek of doughnut fat, the deep richness of baking cakes - especially the fruity cakes, almond paste and sugar icing of Christmas - all made the shop - and the street outside - an aromatic excitement.

The dairy, with its huge grfeen-and-white crocks, painted with flowers and country scenes, had a positive, fresh - almost frosty - smell of new milk, with just a salty hint of butter.  The corn-merchant's, low-ceilinged and dark, breathed its earthy vapours out into the nostrils of the passer-by.  All this was normal, but heightened at Christmas time by profusion, additions and the strange pockets of warmth which welled up from back rooms fired far into the night for the comfort of late workers and the preparation of all kinds of confections.

Even the familiar sweetshops varied the all-the-year-round aniseed balls, sherbet suckers, sherbet dabs, everlasting balls, fruit toffee, gob-stoppers, sweet-cigarettes, liquorice strips and the more refined almond drops and hazel fondants with chocolate 'gift boxes'/  Christmas crackers and crystallized fruits - and all their scents merged in a juvenile incense of heavenly sickliness . . ."

I don't know about you, but that last paragraph is the one which transported me back in time.  I think I could write a dissertation about the sweet shops of my childhood, and my teefs will testify to this!!!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Posh mincemeat tutorial

I treated myself to this magazine recently.  It has some lovely recipes in it and I made the Cranberry and Ginger Chutney from this magazine and as soon as time allowed, I set to and opened the page at Home-made Mincemeat with Cherries in Kirsch and Marzipan and assembled the ingredients.

I have finally been dragged screaming into the 21st C.  My old beam scales are what I use for pounds and ounces weighing (which is what I work in, given the chance).  I also have a set of scales which does both persuasions, but it had been getting a little unbalanced recently and I couldn't trust it for small amounts.  So I went to Fleabay and forked our under £5 (incl. postage) for this wee beast, which will weigh tiny amounts in grams accurately, and will convert to lbs and oz too.  Why did I wait so long?!

I hope you can read this recipe, and that I am not infringing copyright regulations by showing it!, but since it is a published publication I assume not.

Chop finely 200g of prunes.  This is a breakfast bowl, apparently, which I bought from Matalan recently.  It is totally the WRONG shape to be stacked anywhere but on top of plates in my cupboard, BUT it is excellent for holding a small portion of a main meal and for assembling ingredients (sweet or savoury) in.

Add 200g large juicy raisins.

And 200g of dark moist Muscavado sugar.

The recipe called for dried apple, but that seemed unnecessary so I used two of my winter store apples from our own trees, chopped small.

Add the drained cherries.  Also the zest of a lemon and the zest and juice of a good orange.  Before using them I make up my own cleanser to remove pesticides from the peel - take 1 tblspn vinegar (I used my home made cider vinegar for this) and 1 tblspn lemon juice (old lemons perfect for this), and a cup of water.  Place fruit to be cleaned in this for a few minutes, scrub skins and wash and dry.

The spices are added next and it is cooked as per recipe.  Allow it to cool, then add the reserved 6 tblspns Kirsch infused cherry juice and stir in the chopped marzipan.  Bottle into sterilized jars.  Seriously good stuff this and a lovely gift.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Wholewheat Mincemeat Cake recipe for Countryside Tales


100g/4 oz butter
100g/4 oza barbados sugar
3 large eggs
300g/12oz mincemeat (mine is homemade)
175g/7oz self-raising wholewheat flour
About 4 tblspns milk

Grease an 18-20cm/8" round cake tin and line bottom with greased greaseproof paper (I do the sides too).

Cream butter and sugar well.  Beat in eggs, one at a time.  If it begins to curdle add a little of the flour.  Stir in the mincemeat and fold in flour, adding milk to obtain a moist mixture.  Bake in a moderate oven, Gas 3, 325 deg. F, 160 deg. C, for about 1 1/4 hours until cake is firm on top and shrinking slightly from edge of tin.

Keeps well for several weeks (apparently!!!  I couldn't possibly comment . . . )

You can use boughten or home-made mincemeat for this cake - of course, I use the latter.  It makes a lovely moist cake.  Ideal for using up left-over mincemeat if you have any.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Pioneer Women

On occasion we have had to be very self-reliant here, most notably in recent years when we had no central heating at all during one of the coldest winters for years (2010/11) when we had a foot of snow on the ground, and then it rained and froze into a total skating rink outside - you couldn't stand up and even the M4 was closed.  We had to up our fuel supplies and were down scavenging along by the river, which had brought several mature trees onto the bank our side, but which needed cutting up and moving.  They always say that wood warms you three times - cutting it and carrying it, splitting it and then burning it.  You would be surprised what you can manage when you have to, although we were blardy annoyed to have chopped and carried half a very large oak tree, only to return and find someone else with a bigger chainsaw and a pickup had taken the rest!

Then - last year was it? - we were without a phone for 2 months when BT said that they couldn't possibly repair our phone line as it needed a new pole (duly put in) and then they said they couldn't possibly get the line across the river to that new pole because "it was too dangerous" and we would have to wait until April.  Undaunted, we managed to tie a line to a suitable stake and swing that across to the opposite bank - although it involved both of us standing on rocks at the edge of and in the river to do so.

This week I found a 2nd hand book entitled "Pioneer Women - voices from the Kansas Frontier"* by Joanna L Stratton (get your own copy for just 1p from Amazon!).  Having just dipped into it so far, I now realize how tough these women were, and what they had to cope with, both physically and emotionally, in the middle of the Prairies, and with their menfolk frequently away for weeks or months on end.

With my interest in quilting, I knew that trees would often be used as the inspiration for various quilting patterns and that living in the prairie made folk long for the sight of a tree.  Here is one example of that longing (and the loneliness of the prairie too) :-

'That loneliness, usually borne with dignity and silence, could at times express itself in unexpected ways.  Mary Ferguson Darrah recalled a time when "Mr Hilton, a pioneer, told his wife that he was going to Little River for wood.  She asked to go with him . . .  She hadn't seen a tree for two years, and when they arrived at Little River she put her arms around a tree and hugged it until she was hysterical."  *

'Nightfall, blanketing the prairie in a dense, boundless blackness, brough an even keener sense of solitude to the pioneer home.  The profound silence was broken only by the occasional chirr of a cricket or the gentle swish of the tall prairie grass - or by the call of the wild.  For it was during the black nights that the howl of the coyote and the wolf spread terror throughout every frontier homestead.  Often roaming the plains in packs, these rapacious animals would attack without provocation or mercy.

In the summer of 1872 and '73," recalled S N Horsington, "the gray wolves and coyotes were very numerous.  It was not safe to go out across the prairies without a weapon of some kind.  My mother was a nurse and doctor combined.  In early girlhood she used to help her brother mix his medicines, and after she came to Kansas people came for miles for her to doctor their families.

A man by the name of Johnson had filed on a claim just west of us, and had built a sod house.  He and his wife lived there two years, when he went to Salina to secure work.  He was gone two or three months, and wrote home once or twice, but his wife grew very homesick for her folks in the East, and would come over to our house to visit mother.

Mother tried to cheer her up, but she continued to worry until she got bed fast with the fever.  At night she was frightened because the wolves would scratch on the door, on the sod, and on the windows, so my mother and I started to sit up nights with her.  I would bring my revolver and ammunition and axe, and some good-sized clubs.

The odor from the sick woman seemed to attract the wolves, and they grew bolder and bolder.  I would step out, fire off the revolver, and they would settle back for a while, then they would start a new attack.  I shot one through the window and I found him lying dead in the morning.

Finally the woman died, and mother laid her out.  Father took some wide boards that we had in our loft and made a coffin for her.  Mother made a pillow and trimmed it with black cloth, and we also painted the coffin black.

After that the wolves were more determined than ever to get in.  One got his head in between the door casing and as he was trying to wriggle through, mother struck him in the head with an axe and killed him.  I shot one coming through the window.  After that they quieted down for about half an hour, when they came back again.  I stepped out and fired at two of them but I only wounded one.  Their howling was awful.  We fought these wolves five nights in succession, during which time we killed and wounded four gray wolves and two coyotes.

When Mr Johnson arrived home and found his wife dead and his house badly torn down by wolves, he fainted away . . .  After the funeral he sold out and moved away."

And to think they want to reintroduce wolves here (well in Scotland)!