Discover more from Folklore, Food and Fairytales
From Nowruz to Flummery
Via Persephone & Hecate, The Shahnameh, Fairytale Persian Food, A Clever Rabbit & Dr Stephen’s Water
Dearest Gentle Reader.
It is lovely to be back writing to you. I hope all is as well as can be with you and yours.
This letter should reach you on 21 March which as well as being the date that Persephone returned from the Underworld to join Demeter, guided by Hecate to usher in the Spring, is also the first full day of Persian New Year or Nowruz.
Nowruz, which means New Day, marks the beginning of Spring and in Iran is the focus of the 13 days of celebrations. Nowruz is also celebrated by many other cultures including Parsees, Kurds, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks although they all celebrate differently. There are lots of wonderful origin stories for this celebration but I love one that is found in The Shahnameh (a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi containing 62 stories, told in 990 chapters). This tells the tale of how the mythical Iranian King Jamshid, saved mankind from a winter destined to kill all living creatures by building a throne studded with gems. The throne shone like the sun and Spring began. The creatures of the world then gathered and scattered jewels around him and proclaimed that this was the New Day (Now Ruz).
Iranians spend time before Nowruz laying and decorating a special table called ‘Haft sin’ featuring many things beginning with ‘s’ in the Persian language symbolising different teachings. The different things on the table must represent at least seven of these ‘s’ items. Some of the traditional ones are:
*Sabzeh (wheat/lentil grass or at least something green & growing) which symbolises rejuvenation and rebirth.
* Seeb (red apples) which symbolises health and beauty of place and people
* Samanoo (a sweet, germinated wheat pudding) – this is a symbol for increased fertility, affluence and strength
* Seer (a whole garlic bulb) which is a symbol for taking care of your health
* Somaq (sumac in its berry form) which symbolises the sunrise
* Sonbol (hyacinths) - which symbolises spring
* Senjed (fruit/leaves of the oleaster tree) which symbolises love
* Serkeh (vinegar) which symbolises age, growing maturity and patience
The table should also include a mirror to symbolise self-reflection, candles for enlightenment, decorated eggs for fertility, a book of wisdom (perhaps poetry), and a goldfish swimming in a bowl symbolising life (often not a real fish these days).
Some traditional dishes for the festivities are:, Sabzi polo ba mahi (herbed rice with fish), Ghormeh sabzi (stew made of braised lamb and mixed herbs), Reshteh polo (a noodle rice dish), Kuku sabzi (herbed omelette) all of which use ingredients that represent rebirth and new life for the new year. Also on the feast table are likely to be platters of fresh herbs like mint, basil and tarragon, white fresh cheese like paneer, radishes, walnuts and spring onion plus plenty of persian flatbread.
There will also be traditional Nowruz pastries available such as: baghlava (different to baklava of other countries, Persian baghlava uses a softer dough that is rolled out very thin) filled with ground pistachios; naan nokhodchi - melt-in-your-mouth chickpea flour cookies shaped like a clover; naan-e berenji - delicate rose-scented rice flour cookies sprinkled with poppy seeds; sohan assali - Persian honey brittle studded with pistachio and shireeni e toot, little marzipan balls, rolled in sugar with a pistachio sliver to resemble a mulberry.
I first learned about this amazing festival from the wonderful Sabrina Ghayour who shares her joy in this special time as far and wide as she can. If you want to cook Persian food you should look up Persiana and Persiana everyday as well as her other fabulous cookbooks. Sabrina is a generous cook who shares her expertise and tips happily and I’m not just saying that because she admired my version of her recipe for Tepsi kebab on Instagram. You can find out all about her on her website or follow her on Instagram to see her honest, joyful approach to life.
For me, Persian food is the food of fairytales and the magical stories of the 1,001 Nights and Sabrina was one of the first cooks to give me the confidence to cook the Persian food I had fallen in love with in those tales and also in books like Pomegranate Soup and Rosewater and Soda Bread written by the late Marsha Meran. I have written about the foods of 1,001 Nights in letters that I have sent to you before but I have included a couple of quotes below from Pomegranate Soup just to show you the beauty of the writing but be warned, it will make you desperately hungry if you aren’t already.
“Long ago, when the earth remained still, content with the fecundity of perpetual spring, and Demeter was the mother of all that was natural and flowering, it was this tempting fruit that finally set the seasons spinning. Having eaten six pomegranate seeds in the underworld, Persephone, the Goddess of Spring's high-spirited daughter, had been forced to spend six months of the year in the eternal halls of death. Without her beautiful daughter by her side, a mournful Demeter retreated to the dark corners of the universe, allowing for the icy gates of winter to finally creak open. A round crimson herald of frost, the pomegranate comes to harvest in October and November. …… Unlike the classical Greeks, for whom the fruit symbolised the inescapable cycle of bitter death, with a remorseful Persephone returning to the underworld for her six months of required winter, Marjan liked to believe the old stories of Persian soothsayers, who held a different vision of the tart fruit's purpose in life. She liked to remember that above all else, above all the unfortunate connotations of death and winter, the pomegranate was, and always would be, the fruit of hope.
The flower of fertility, of new things and old seasons to be cradled.”
― Marsha Mehran, Pomegranate Soup
“At only nine in the morning the kitchen was already pregnant to its capacity, every crevice and countertop overtaken by Marjan's gourmet creations. Marinating vegetables ('torshis' of mango, eggplant, and the regular seven-spice variety), packed to the briny brims of five-gallon see-through canisters, sat on the kitchen island. Large blue bowls were filled with salads (angelica lentil, tomato, cucumber and mint, and Persian fried chicken), 'dolmeh,' and dips (cheese and walnut, yogurt and cucumber, baba ghanoush, and spicy hummus), which, along with feta, Stilton, and cheddar cheeses, were covered and stacked in the enormous glass-door refrigerator. Opposite the refrigerator stood the colossal brick bread oven. Baking away in its domed belly was the last of the 'sangak' bread loaves, three feet long and counting, rising in golden crests and graced with scatterings of poppy and nigella seed. The rest of the bread (paper-thin 'lavash,' crusty 'barbari,' slabs of 'sangak' as well as the usual white sliced loaf) was already covered with comforting cheesecloth to keep the freshness in. And simmering on the stove, under Marjan's loving orders, was a small pot of white onion soup (not to be mistaken for the French variety, for this version boasts dried fenugreek leaves and pomegranate paste), the last pot of red lentil soup, and a larger pot of 'abgusht.' An extravaganza of lamb, split peas, and potatoes, 'abgusht' always reminded Marjan of early spring nights in Iran, when the cherry blossoms still shivered with late frosts and the piping samovars helped wash down the saffron and dried lime aftertaste with strong, black Darjeeling tea.”
― Marsha Mehran, Pomegranate Soup
It only seems right that after all these celebrations of Persian food that our folktale or maybe fable should come from there too:
The Clever Rabbit adapted from Cyrus Safdari
Far away from here there was once a lovely tree-covered valley, surrounded by high mountains. A mighty river ran through this valley, watering all the variety of trees and other plants that grew there. Many animals made this valley their home — rabbits, birds, squirrels, and deer. They all lived happily in the valley, because there were no wolves or lions there to eat them.
But one day, a wolf climbed down the mountains and entered the valley. No sooner had he arrived than he started to chase after the helpless animals, and started to eat them one by one. Some of the animals managed to run away unscathed, but all the animals were worried that next, it would be their turn.
In their worry, the animals turned to the old owl, and asked him to find a way to rid the valley of the wolf. The owl replied that there was no way to fight the wolf, whose fangs and paws were more powerful than any other animal in the valley, and so they must learn to live with the wolf, the old owl counseled.
The animals protested that they could not live in constant fear of being eaten, and so they hatched a desperate plan: it was agreed everyday, one of the animals would be selected by the others, who would go to the wolf and be eaten. That way, the rest of the animals would rest peacefully, knowing that the wolf had eaten that day and would not be chasing them.
Naturally the wolf, who was tired of chasing the animals and relished the idea of his food coming to him by itself, agreed to this plan without hesitation. And so, on the following day, the animals gathered together in the early morning and decided that the little rabbit, who conicidentallywas the smallest and weakest resident of the valley, was to be fed to the wolf.
The rabbit was scared and first tried to run away, but soon realised that he had nowhere to go. He then considered fighting the wolf, but soon realised that the wolf was far too powerful for him. So he meekly trudged to the wolf’s lair, and once there, cried out “Oh wolf! Oh wolf! Come out of your lair, for I am to be your supper today.”
The wolf immediately came out of its lair, and sniffed the rabbit hungrily. “Why, what a delicious little morel you will make!” said the wolf, “I can’t believe my luck in finding this valley where the animals sacrifice themselves to me so willingly!”
“It is true, I was brought here by my own four little feet,” the rabbit sighed, “for I know that I cannot escape my fate, and such a mighty wolf as you, even though you’re not the scariest or most powerful wolf in the valley.”
At this, the vain wolf was dumbfounded. “What? What do you mean, I’m not the scariest or most powerful wolf in this valley? I am the only wolf here, and there are no other wolves in this valley!” cried the wolf, indignantly.
“Oh, you don’t know about the other wolf,” said the rabbit. “No matter, you should go ahead and eat me now, for even if I escape your clutches, no animal could ever hope to escape the other, scarier and more powerful, wolf.” The rabbit then tried to climb into the wolf’s mouth.
The wolf bristled at the rabbit’s words, shook him out of his mouth and said, “Take me to this other wolf, and I will spare you for today, my delicious little morsel. Show me where this other wolf who thinks he’s better than me lives.”
The rabbit let out a little sigh and said, “Oh what difference does it make to me, for in the end I will be eaten by a wolf, whether it is you or the other wolf, with the bigger teeth and stronger legs. Follow me then.”
“Humph!” said the wolf, “We shall see who is bigger and stronger. Lead on!”
So the wolf followed the rabbit as they walked a ways, until they reached an old abandoned well.
“There,” pointed the rabbit, “There is the lair of the other wolf, who is stronger and meaner than you. All you have to do is look down into the well, and I am sure you will see him in there, resting from his last feast.”At this, the wolf jumped up onto the well wall, and peered down into the darkness.
“I don’t see anything, it is too dark!” said the wolf.
“You have to look more closely, for I am sure he’s in there. Put your whole head down into the well, and you will see him looking back at you,” replied the rabbit. So the wolf bent over, and stuck his head into the well. After a few moments, when his eyes had a chance to adjust to the darkness, the wolf saw his own reflection in the water at the bottom of the well, as if it was another wolf looking back at him.
“Aha! Now I see you, you coward!” the wolf yelled into the well. No sooner had he done this, than his own voice echoed back from the bottom of the well. “Did you just call me a coward? How dare you! Come here, and we’ll see who is the nastier wolf!” yelled the wolf. But again, his own voice echoed back to him from the well.
The rabbit, who had witnessed the wolf arguing with himself in the well, told the wolf, “I don’t think he’s coming out here. Naturally, the bigger and scarier wolf will have to chase after the smaller, less-scary one.” The wolf heard the rabbit and without hesitation, jumped into the well, chasing after his own reflection in the water. But since the wolf did not know how to swim, he never came out of the old well, and the valley was rid of the evil old wolf — thanks to a small, but tricksy rabbit.
The rabbit in the story, although very much from the Persian tradition, reminds me of the Brer Rabbit Stories, at least in how he tricks the wolf. I grew up on those stories and love them still but didn’t realise until I was an adult that they weren’t from the same part of the world to me.
This has been a different letter to normal and I hope you have enjoyed the change but I thought I would still include our vintage and remedy for familiarity if nothing else. I was going to include a remedy for consumption but as I hope that none of you have such a terrible thing as a consumption and to be honest if you do, a vintage remedy is unlikely to help. So I thought this Dr Stephen’s Water might be fun. I have not idea what it is supposed to remedy but it sounds delightful yet also terrifyingly expensive to make. Standard disclaimer about 18th century remedies and taking medical advice applies. This comes from the The Compleat City and Country Cook or Accomplish’d Housewife but Charles Carter in 1732.
Our recipe is frankly ridiculous but I absolutely loved the idea of it, even if in reality it would perhaps be daunting. This comes from The Complete Housewife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by E Smith in 1773. How can you not like anything made of flummery?
So with that, Gentle Reader, 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.