Friday 22 June 2018

Midsummer Nights and a Midsummer Pudding by Catherine Hokin

Oh the joys of Midsummer: that part of the year when retailers begin to count down the shopping days to Christmas and those of us who live in Scotland wonder whether we can risk turning the heating off. Although we give it one name, the celebration actually comes in two stages. It starts with Solstice or the longest day (June 21st), associated with pagan festivities and then moves to Midsummer's Day itself (24th), one of the four Quarter Days in the UK legal calendar and also traditionally the Christian festival of St John. That means we are currently in a summer limbo - a little like the period between Christmas and New Year except with charred raw sausages rather than Quality Street and hopefully a prettier name. That last may mean nothing outside Scotland, suffice to say it's a biological term starting with p and ending in m and I'm sure you can work it out. Anyway, to badly paraphrase Dave Allen, whichever god goes with you, there's a celebration to be had.

 Kupala Summer Solstice Festival, Russia
The summer solstice is the sun's most powerful day and has been celebrated for thousands of years with fires and and torch-lit processions. In ancient times, the fires, which included bonfires and flame deliberately set in motion such as burning wheels rolling down hillsides, were seen as a magical way of feeding the sun and strengthening its power. As Midsummer was perceived as one of those times in the calendar when the veil between mortal and spirit worlds lifted, fire was also important for warding off bad luck, stopping the evil spirits who might cross through, and encouraging prosperity in the year to come. Blazing gorse was carried round cattle to drive away disease and the most athletic revelers were encouraged to leap over high-burning fires. Supposedly, the highest jump predicted the height crops would reach in the new harvest season.

 Rowan Tree: no go for witches
For pagans, the solstice also saw the Wheel of the Year coming to one of its most significant points: the Goddess, who took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of spring, is now at the height of her power and fertility. Midsummer was traditionally therefore a time for gathering flowers and herbs with 'magical' properties. Gathering is one of the traditions which survived the religious reformations of the fifteenth century aimed at putting the feast of St John the Baptist more to the fore than church-threatening superstitions and, in parts of Wales at least, Midsummer Day is still called Gathering Day because of this practise. Whatever they told the priests about new trends in decorating and design, people continued to pick their plants and protect themselves, their homes and their cattle with evil-spirit repelling garlands. In a nice fusion of old and new, it was especially important to pick the yellow-herb St John's Wort, known as 'chase-devil' which would be hung above doors as a protective measure. Rowan was also thought to be powerful against witches and was added to bonfires or specifically burned on Midsummer's Day in a number of places, including Cumbria. Other plants to look out for around this date include Orpine, which is also known as 'Midsummer's Men' but be careful: if a piece is picked on Midsummer's Eve and wilts overnight, disappointment is certain for the one who picked it, and possibly also death. Send someone else if you have a hankering.

 Mazey Day Cornwall
Like many old traditions, much of the rituals associated with Midsummer are no longer practised on a countrywide scale. Perhaps the best way to experience them nowadays is at Stonehenge or in Cornwall where the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies has revived some of the old celebrations. The annual festival of the Feast of St John the Baptist in Penzance lasts a week, beginning on the Friday closest to the 24th and concluding with a parade on Mazey Day and includes traditional bonfires set all along the coast. I also remember climbing Glastonbury Tor in a swirl of magical lights and music one Midsummer a few years ago and genuinely wish I could remember it more but that's another story.

Whatever you're celebrating this summer, be it Midsummer or Wimbledon or the World Cup or the ability to escape them all, you need something a bit more special than a washed-out barbecue. I have a wonderful old book called Catten Cakes and Lace which includes recipes for all the year's celebrations and for Midsummer they have a delightful creation called Queen Mab's Summer Pudding. If you really want to do the faery queen justice, bring out a different kind of Barbie, stick her in the finished creation and make the whipped cream into the ruffles on her skirt; just a thought...

6-8 slices stale white bread with crusts cut off
675g - blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries
2 tablespoons water
150g sugar

Line a 1 litre pudding bowl with slices of bread. Cut more if needed to completely cover the bottom and sides. Wash and prepare the fruit, add to a pan with the water and sugar. Boil gently until the sugar melts and juices run but don't let the fruit disintegrate. Spoon the fruit into the prepared dish, make a bread lid, put a small plate on top, weight it down and chill for 8 hours or more. Remove the weights, turn onto a plate, decorate with the cream and celebrate summer.

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