Discover more from Folklore, Food and Fairytales
From Cooking & Storytelling to Lazagne Soop
Via Mother Shipton’s Day, Goosnargh Cakes, The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies & A Remedy Against Melancholie
Dearest Gentle Reader,
I hope all is as well as can be with you on the day after a Bank Holiday. I love the Spring Bank Holiday or to give it its earlier name of Whit Monday (the day following Whit Sunday or Whitsun). I have so much to share with you around the folklore and food of this bank holiday time but I will get to that shortly. This is my anniversary letter. I have been writing these letters for a whole year which is a lovely surprise but it crept up on me. I realised last week that I should try and come up with something special for you all and I think I have managed it. I have the aforementioned folklore and food of Whitsun with recipes, plus I have a gorgeous story for you about a wonderfully clever woman. Finally, following last week’s discussion about recipes I have some words to share with you about how you can apply the essential rules of storytelling to those of cooking.
We should probably begin otherwise we’ll never have time to fit it all in. This came to me as I was considering the wisdom of Nigel and Nigella about learning to cook and how to trust yourself without rigidly following a recipe and it made me think how similar these guidelines are to the essentials of storytelling. I will start by sharing quotes from my heroes and then break it down for you so you can see what I mean:
“Cooking is not about just joining the dots, following one recipe slavishly and then moving on to the next. It’s about developing an understanding of food, a sense of assurance in the kitchen, about the simple desire to make yourself something to eat. And in cooking, as in writing, you must please yourself to please others. Strangely it can take enormous confidence to trust your own palate, follow your own instincts. Without habit, which itself is just trial and error, this can be harder than following the most elaborate of recipes. But it’s what works, what’s important.”
How to Eat - Nigella Lawson
At the end of the day a recipe is only telling you about someone else's taste. The writer is not allowing for your own. This Is why I get particularly exasperated with the more pedantic branch of the cookery-writing world that insists this is the ultimate recipe for coq au vIn/lasagne/chicken tikka masala and this is how it must be done, otherwise it is just not right.' What they mean is that they have done this recipe over and over again and they think it is just delicious and want you to try it, too. Fair enough. But to assume that their word is law is ridiculous - not to say downright arrogant. Don't be bullied by recipe writers. Listen to what they have to say - they know the pitfalls and also the fun to be had cooking - but trust your own taste, too. If you like the taste of a recipe as it is and the next line says 'add 300ml more cream', then don't be bullied into adding the extra cream. Taste continually as you cook, and trust that taste. The crux of the matter is that it may be their recipe but it is your supper.
Appetite - Nigel Slater
Here follows my rules (not rules really, more like guidelines) for cooking and storytelling, perhaps it’s the start of a new way of learning both
Rule 1 - Don’t rush
If you let your nerves or excitement get the better of you when storytelling, most people have the tendency to speed up to the detriment of the story. The pauses are essential. This goes for cooking too, if you don’t take the time to read through the recipe you can be surprised by steps in the method, increasing your stress and causing you to make mistakes which makes you more more stressed and any joy in cooking disappears. Remember, in both cooking and storytelling, people should be waiting for you, not the other way round.
2. Love your material
If you have chosen that story to tell or that dish to make then there must be some value to it otherwise why would you choose it from all the choices available to you? Enjoy the tale or the ingredients, let the tale or dish unfold to your audience, share its worth with those in front of you. If you love it then anyone who is experiencing either the resulting food or story will love it too. If you aren’t interested in what you have to share, then the dish or tale will lack a certain something too.
3. Involve Emotion
A story works best when it can make the audience feel something. A meal works best when it works with the emotions of those eating it. With stories, any emotion will do when engaging your audience but when cooking it's probably best to avoid inspiring horror and perhaps aim for joy or excitement. However if someone needs comforting perhaps a favourite tale or comforting dish is the way to go.
4. Use Imagination
Imagination helps us to invest in both stories and delicious dishes. Imagination helps your audience to picture the elements ahead of them providing that you give them a few pointers. It will get them hooked, whether that's for the delights of a delicious dinner or being carried along by your tale.
5. Provide sensory elements
When telling a tale you can make it feel more solid to the audience if you bring in sensory details. It's not just what you can see or hear but what you can smell and touch and how those make you feel inside. That visceral shock you feel in a very scary story is there because the person that told the tale engaged your senses as well as wowed you with words. Senses are also essential to cooking, especially when you are learning to rely on your own skills rather than a recipe: Smell, listen, touch, look, taste are the best tools a cook can use. You can smell burning but as you cook more, your sense of smell will provide good clues as to how your ingredients are progressing. You can hear the sizzle or spit giving you clues as to the right cooking temperature and eventually you will even be able to tell whether a cake is done by the sound it makes. A prod with a finger for steak, a test with teeth for pasta or a knife sliding easily into potatoes are all excellent tests for doneness. Additionally, does it look good? Are things an appetising colour or do the edges of your egg look crispy? Finally, how do things actually taste, the ultimate clue to see if something is at its best.
Remember that very few people turn up for dinner or to hear a storyteller in order to criticise. They want you to succeed because that means a short while spent in a different world and away from life’s difficulties or a wonderful meal that they don’t have to cook themselves. A few deep breaths will help even if its only yourself you want to impress.
The more you practise the more you are able to improvise and that works for both your story and with cooking. When you have performed your story several times, knowing instinctively where to pause and the key points to get across, you will be much more relaxed and your audience will relax with you right up until the point where you surprise them! The more you cook, the better you will get to know your ingredients and your equipment and will be able to improvise, changing things to your taste, swapping out ingredients for ones that are readily available to you instead of hunting for expensive produce out of season. Knowing when adding little extras will make all the difference and when to leave well enough alone.
I am frankly prepared to continue this analogy at length but to save everyone’s attention span I think we now need to look at some excellent food related folklore around the celebration of Whitsun in England. A lot of the celebrations around Whitsun and Whit Monday (now Spring Bank Holiday) were similar to those around May Day including competitions and fairs and maypole dances but these tended to be organised by churches and other organisations so tended to be a bit more formalised. This was also one of the days where it was important to have at least one item of new clothing or the crows would pay you too much attention.
There is a lot more folklore around these festivities but I am only going to focus on a a few food related items. The first is most famous and that is the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling which still exists to this day despite some quite justifiable safety concerns. It stopped for the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 but came back in 2022 and this year one of the female winners only realised she had won when she returned to consciousness in the medical tent having been knocked out as she crossed the line. The race is essentially the first person to reach the bottom of Coopers Hill following the rolling cheese and the cheese (encased in a wooden round and decorated with ribbon for the race) is the prize.
The hill is very steep, practically vertical in places so this makes for a good selection of injuries each year but this doesn’t put off both local and international competitors. The cheeses are traditional Double Gloucester made locally by Mrs Smart’s Cheese. As to the origins of the race, some say it was all about claiming grazing rights on the common land around Cooper's Hill, others believe it could have been a fertility ritual and that it has been going for around 600 years. It is however likely that this just formed part of other festivities as mentioned above and just happens to be the only remaining activity. Cheese rolling almost certainly formed part of other Whit week celebrations wherever there was a local hard cheese tradition and a suitable hill!
My second favourite food tradition is St Briavels Bread and Cheese Dole. Local people once paid a penny a year for the privilege of receiving a distribution of cheese and bread after service on Whit Sunday. This originally took place in the local church where cubes of cheese and bread were thrown from the gallery but eventually was moved out into the lane behind the church due to the forceful nature of the scrambling. It was considered that because the bread and cheese was blessed by the vicar, it would never go bad, in a similar way to bread produced on Good Friday. I’m not sure about that but there does seem to be evidence to suggest that this whole thing was not a way of giving to the poor at such a religious time but was actually connected with rights of cutting and taking wood in local woodland. However I would not be one to look askance at any form of free bread and cheese with or without the wood cutting rights.
My last tradition loosely around food (well rum actually), I have only found mention of in The English Year: A Month-By-Month Guide To The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night by Steve Roud which is a wonderful book. I am not going to worry about my single source however and plan to celebrate Mother Shipton’s Day on Whit Wednesday in the age old tradition of Cambridge laundresses by putting rum in my tea whilst I pop a wash on. I have no idea where this tradition came from as Cambridge is nowhere near Knaresborough where the Mother Shipton cave is and the legend of her prophecies began but who am I to question it?
Shall I throw in a couple more food specialities for Whitsun? There are also recipes to go with them. The first one is for Goosnargh Cakes which ought to win awards just for how the word Goosnargh feels in your mouth. They are amazing shortbread type biscuits flavoured with caraway seeds which were made in Goosnargh, and were a speciality of Whitsun week. There is no indication why caraway was a flavouring in particular but as a spice has historically been used in England for flavouring sweet breads and cakes. Goosnargh Cakes have actually been placed on the Slow Food England - Ark of Taste list. This is a list of foods which are at risk (imminent or potential) of disappearance, whether through falling out of use, or by being marginalised by industrial food production.
This is not because they are delicious but almost certainly because their high butter content was problematic during war time rationing and the steady disappearance of caraway spicing in English foods. They are now being made again on a small scale but are not linked as they were to Whitsun, so the fact that I have missed Whitsun slightly in the timing of this letter should not trouble you if you wish to leap up and try them this minute.
Here is a link to a recipe thought to date from around 1900 http://lancashire-food.blogspot.com/2013/05/goosnargh-cakes-forgotten-food-for-slow.html
I’m a huge fan of caraway flavoured things, partly I suspect because Mum used to make seed cake for me when I was little and just the smell makes me feel warm and loved no matter where I find it. In folklore caraway seeds were said to prevent things being stolen and this applied to people as well as inanimate items. A few seeds in your husband’s pocket were said to prevent him from straying and they were often added to love philtres or potions to make sure that any love that was attracted was of the long and faithful kind.
The second Whitsuntide specialty was Yorkshire Curd Tart which I have never eaten but looks heavenly. Curd Pies or Curd tarts were the precursor to cheesecakes and were popular at this this time of year due to need to use up a seasonal surfeit of milk and a lack or refrigeration. Neil Buttery provides wonderful history for the Yorkshire version as well as recipe here: https://britishfoodhistory.com/2014/02/09/yorkshire-curd-tart/ . He provides instruction for making your own curd cheese (which is useful as it is hard to buy) using bottled rennet but if you want to avoid messing rennet then there are plenty of instructions in the comments section below the recipe for easier alternative versions.
That's probably enough of Whitsun isn’t it? Although I truly do appreciate a Spring Bank Holiday that is very dairy focussed.
Would you like the story now? It is from the Highlands of Scotland and was collected in Thistle & Thyme by Sorche nic Leodhas and a version has been adapted and illustrated as a children’s book. This version is closer to the oral version but shares the same title which is fabulous: The Woman who Flummoxed the Fairies
The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies
THERE WAS a woman once who was a master baker. Her bannocks were like wheaten cakes, her wheaten cakes were like the finest pastries, and her pastries were like nothing but Heaven itself in the mouth!
Not having her match, or anything like it, in seven counties round she made a good penny by it, for therewasn’t a wedding nor a christening for miles aroundin the countryside but she was called upon to make the cakes for it, and she got the trade of all the gentry as well. She was fair in her prices and she was honest, too, but she was that goodhearted into the bargain. Those who could pay well she charged aplenty, but when some poor body came and begged her to make a wee bit of a cake for a celebration and timidly offered her the little money they had for it, she’d wave it away and tell them to pay her when they got the cake. Then she'd set to and bake a cake as fine and big as any she’d make for a laird, and she’d send it to them as a gift, with the best respects of her husband and herself to the wedding pair or the parents of the baby that was to be christened, so nobody’s feelings were hurt.
Not only was she a master baker, but she was the cleverest woman in the world; and it was the first that got her into trouble, but it was the second that got her out of it.
The fairies have their own good foods to eat, but they dearly love a bit of baker’s cake once in a while, and will often steal a slice of one by night from a kitchen while all the folks in a house are sleeping.
In a nearby hill there was a place where the fairies lived, and of all cakes the ones the fairies liked best were the ones this master baker made. The trouble was, the taste of one was hard to come by, for her cakes were all so good that they were always eaten up at a sitting, with hardly a crumb left over for a poor fairy to find.
So then the fairies plotted together to carry the woman away and to keep her with them always just to bake cakes for them.
Their chance came not long after, for there was to be a great wedding at the castle with hundreds of guests invited, and the woman was to make the cakes. There would have to be so many of them, with so many people coming to eat them, that the woman was to spend the whole day before the wedding in the castle kitchen doing nothing but bake one cake after another!
The fairies learned about this from one of their number who had been listening at the keyhole of the baker’s door. They found out, too, what road she'd be taking coming home.
When the night came, there they were by a fairy mound where the road went by, hiding in flower cups, and under leaves, and in all manner of places.
When she came by they all flew out at her. “The fireflies are very thick this night,” said she. But it was not fireflies. It was fairies with the moonlight sparkling on their wings.
Then the fairies drifted fern seed into her eyes, and all of a sudden she was that sleepy that she could go not one step farther without a bit of a rest!
‘Mercy me!’ she said with a yawn. ‘It’s worn myself out I have this day!’ And she sank down on what she took to be a grassy bank to doze just for a minute. But it wasn’t a bank at all. It was the fairy mound, and once she lay upon it she was in the fairies’ power.
She knew nothing about that nor anything else till she woke again, and found herself in fairyland. Being a clever woman she didn’t have to be told where she was, and she guessed how she got there. But she didn’t let on.
‘Well now,” she said happily, ‘and did you ever! It’s all my life I’ve wanted to get a peep into fairyland. And here I am!’
They told her what they wanted, and she said to herself, indeed she had no notion of staying there the rest of her life! But she didn’t tell the fairies that either.
‘To be sure!’ she said cheerfully. ‘Why you poor wee things! To think of me baking cakes for everyone else, and not a one for you! So let’s be at it,’ said she,‘with no time wasted.’
Then from her kittiebag that hung at her side she took a clean apron and tied it round her waist, while the fairies, happy that she was so willing, licked their lips in anticipation and rubbed their hands for joy.
‘Let me see now,’ said she, looking about her. ‘Well, ’tis plain you have nothing for me to be baking a cake with. You'll just have to be going to my own kitchen to fetch back what I'll need.’
Yes, the fairies could do that. So she sent some for eggs, and some for sugar, and some for flour, and some for butter, while others flew off to get a selection of other things she told them she had to have. At last all was ready for the mixing and the woman asked for a bowl. But the biggest one they could find for her was the size of a teacup, and a wee dainty one at that.
Well then, there was nothing for it, but they must go and fetch her big yellow crockery bowl from off the shelf over the water butt. And after that it was her wooden spoons and her egg whisk and one thing and another, till the fairies were all exhausted, what with the flying back and forth, and the carrying, and only the thought of the cake to come of it kept their spirits up at all.
At last everything she wanted was at hand. The woman began to measure and mix and whip and beat. But all of a sudden she stopped.
‘Tis no use!” she sighed. ‘I can’t ever seem to mix a cake without my cat beside me, purring.’
‘Fetch the cat!” said the fairy king sharply.
So they fetched the cat. The cat lay at the woman’s feet and purred, and the woman stirred away at the bowl, and for a while all was well. But not for long.
The woman let go of the spoon and sighed again. ‘Well now, would you think it?’ said she. ‘I’m that used to my dog setting the time of my beating by the way he snores at every second beat that I can’t seem to get the beat right without him.’
‘Fetch the dog! cried the king.
So they fetched the dog and he curled up at her feet beside the cat. The dog snored, the cat purred, the woman beat the cake batter, and all was well again. Or so the fairies thought.
But no! The woman stopped again. ‘I’m that worried about my babe,’ said she. ‘Away from him
all night as I’ve been, and him with a new tooth pushing through this very week. It seems I just can’t mix...”
‘Fetch that babe!’ roared the fairy king, without waiting for her to finish what she was saying. And they fetched the babe.
So the woman began to beat the batter again. But when they brought the babe, he began to scream the minute he saw her, for he was hungry, as she knew he would be, because he never would let his da feed him his porridge and she had not been home to do it.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you,’ said the woman, raising her voice above the screaming of the babe, ‘but I can’t stop beating now lest the cake go wrong. Happen my husband could get the babe quiet if...’
The fairies didn’t wait for the king to tell them what to do. Off they flew and fetched the husband back with them. He, poor man, was all in a whirl, what with things disappearing from under his eyes right and left, and then being snatched through the air himself the way he was. But here was his wife, and he knew where she was things couldn’t go far wrong. But the baby went on screaming.
So the woman beat the batter, and the baby screamed, and the cat purred, and the dog snored, and the man rubbed his eyes and watched his wife to see what she was up to. The fairies settled down, though‘twas plain to see that the babe’s screaming disturbed them. Still, they looked hopeful.
Then the woman reached over and took up the egg whisk and gave the wooden spoon to the babe, who at once began to bang away with it, screaming just the same. Under cover of the screaming of the babe and the banging of the spoon and the swishing of the egg whisk the woman whispered to her husband, ‘Pinch the dog!”
‘What?’ said the man. But he did it just the same — and kept on doing it.
‘Tow! row! row!’ barked the dog, and added his voice to the babe’s screams, and the banging of the wooden spoon, and the swishing of the egg whisk.
‘Tread on the tail of the cat!’ whispered the woman to her husband, and it’s a wonder he could hear her. But he did. He had got the notion now and he entered the game for himself. He not only trod on the tail of the cat, but he kept his foot there while the cat howled like a dozen lost souls.
So the woman swished, and the baby screamed, and the wooden spoon banged, and the dog yelped, and the cat howled, and the whole of it made a terrible din. The fairies, king and all, flew round and round in distraction with their hands over their ears, for if there is one thing the fairies can’t bear it’s a lot of noise and there was a lot more than a lot of noise in fairyland that day! And what’s more the woman knew what they liked and what they didn’t all the time!
So then the woman got up and poured the batter into two pans that stood ready. She laid by the egg whisk and took the wooden spoon away from the babe, and picking him up she popped a lump of sugar into his mouth. That surprised him so much that he stopped screaming. She nodded to her husband and he stopped pinching the dog and took his foot from the cat’s tail, and in a minute’s time all was quiet. The fairies stopped flying round and round and sank down exhausted.
And then the woman said, ‘The cake’s ready for the baking. Where’s the oven?”
The fairies looked at each other in dismay, and at last the fairy queen said weakly, ‘There isn’t any oven.”
‘What!’ exclaimed the woman. ‘No oven? Well then, how do you expect me to be baking the cake?”
None of the fairies could find the answer to that.
“Well then,’ said the woman, ‘you’ll just have to be taking me and the cake home to bake it in my own oven, and bring me back later when the cake’s all done.’
The fairies looked at the babe and the wooden spoon and the egg whisk and the dog and the cat and the man. And then they all shuddered like one.
“You may all go!’ said the fairy king. ‘But don’t ask us to be taking you. We’re all too tired.’
‘Och, you must have your cake then,’ said the woman,feeling sorry for them now she’d got what she wanted, which was to go back to her own home, ‘after all the trouble you’ve had for it! I’ll tell you what I'll do. After it’s baked, I'll be leaving it for you beside the road, behind the bank where you found me. And what’s more I'll put one there for you every single weekend from now on.’
The thought of having one of the woman’s cakes every week revived the fairies so that they forgot they were all worn out. Or almost did.
‘I'll not be outdone!’ cried the fairy king. ‘For what you find in that same place shall be your own!’
Then the woman picked up the pans of batter, and the man tucked the bowls and spoons and things under one arm and the baby under the other. The fairy king raised an arm and the hill split open. Out they all walked, the woman with the pans of batter, the man with the bowls and the babe, and the dog and the cat at their heels, Down the road they walked and back to their own house, and never looked behind them.
When they got back to their home the woman put the pans of batter into the oven, and then she dished out the porridge that stood keeping hot on the back of the fire and gave the babe his supper.
There wasn’t a sound in that house except for the clock ticking and the kettle singing and the cat purring and the dog snoring. And all those were soft, quiet sounds.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said the man at last. ‘It doesn’t seem fair on the rest of the men that I should have the master baker and the cleverest woman in the world all in one wife.’
‘Trade me off then for one of the ordinary kind,’ said his wife, laughing at him.
‘I’ll not do it,’ said he. ‘I’m very well suited as I am.” So that’s the way the woman flummoxed the fairies.
A good thing she made out of it, too, for when the cake was baked and cooled the woman took it up and put it behind the fairy mound, as she had promised.
And when she set it down she saw there a little brown bag. She took the bag up and opened it and looked within, and it was full of bright shining yellow gold pieces.
And so it went, week after week. A cake for the fairies, a bag of gold for the woman and her husband. They never saw one of the fairies again, but the bargain was never broken and they grew rich by it. So of course they lived, as why should they not, happily ever after.
I hope you enjoyed the tale, I’m sure that both the dog and cat made a full recovery and got lots of treats for their participation and suffering.
After that there only remains our vintage remedy and recipe and I hope you enjoy both. I can’t say much about the remedy. I just loved the fact that it was simply Against Melancholie. Sadly I couldn’t tell for definite if gillyflowers were carnations or cloves and the rest of the recipe including measurements was also beyond me but the thought is nice isn’t it. If you wish to find this and many other equally tricky to translate remedies, you may find them in A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets in Physick and Chyurgery collected and practiced by the Right Honorable, the Countesse of Kent from 1653.
I hope you like the recipe which is from The Professed Cook or the Modern Art of Cookery, Pastry and Confectionary in 1769. I was at first surprised of the mention of lasagne in this early a cookbook and couldn’t wait to find out what a lasagne soup was. It turns out it isn’t soup at all but a layered cheese and pasta dish which had some broth added presumably to make it a little easier to digest and eat, also to make a change from just layers of cheese and pasta. It is also possible that there was a little difficulty in the translation from the French who presumably translated it from the Italian.
Gentle Reader, that is definitely enough, even for an anniversary letter. So much so that I may take next week off to read at my leisure instead whilst sipping tea/cocktails dependent on the time of day and enjoying an elegant canape or even two.
So with that in mind, I must bring this letter to a close. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the comments or via any of my social media profiles/my website . If you have enjoyed this and would like to read further such nonsense and have not yet subscribed, please don’t hesitate to subscribe for free at the button below. You’d be very welcome and it would be a joy to write to you.