Snails & Cider December 5th

Photo by Mats Hagwall on Unsplash

Worlidge ‘s ‘Systema Agriculturae’ 1697 says this is the time to destroy snails. He suggests that, at Michaelmas, you create a shelter for snails against a wall using bricks or boards. In Early December the plantsman can get his revenge on the little blighters, unsuspected and snuggled up in their cosy den. (First spotted in Charles Knightly’s Perpetual Almanac)

The RHS has some more modern advice, but generally takes a negative opinion of snails. The Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust take a much more positive view of snails and slugs and proposes their contribution to nature should be rewarded by learning to love and live with the little critters.

Improving the cider before Christmas

A man shakes an apple tree laden with fruit, which a woman gathers in her apron.
The caption reads in the original French: Abondance de biens ne nuit pas (You can never have too much of a good thing)

If your cider is a bit off add half a peck of wheat to restart the fermentation to make it more mild and gentle. Use Mustard or two or three rotten apples to clear the cider.

Although it’s all a little Thomas Hardy, Cider expert Gabe Cook provides instruction in how to make cider from your own cider tree without investing in a huge fruit press.

First Published on December 5th 2022, revised and republished on December 5th 2023

A History of the Roman Empire in 21 women

Below, I give links to the Late November and early December Posts I have revised and republished. But, first, I would like to tell you about a great lecture I heard at the British Museum, this evening. It was given by Dr Emma Southon on her book about women in the Roman Empire. Her viewpoint was that a study of women in the Roman Empire gives a radically different insight into the Roman world than the traditional. One full of humanity rather than normal evidence which is, generally, about wars, and Empires and bravery and horrific cruelty and ambition and honour. She started with the story of Turia, whose extraordinary epitaph on her tombstone miraculous survived and gave her husband’s view of his extraordinary wife, and his utter sorrow at his loss on her death. Below, is a review of the book and a link to a podcast with the Author.

So, here are the December posts. December 1st and 2nd give an overview of December and the meaning of Winter. December 3rd is about Advent and the fact that you were not allowed to marry during Advent. December 4 gives a Shakespearean view of a cold winter’s day, and a composition by Vaughan Williams.

And late November posts, November 28th tells some interesting tales, both ancient and modern, about Eels, Pies, Rock ‘n’ Roll and my horror of Jellied Eels. November 29th, tells you how to make a ‘dish of snow’ and introduces Ice Houses. November 30th is about Scotland and St Andrews. Like them if you like them! And share them if you want to share them.

Winter Song by William Shakespeare December 4th

When icicles hang by the wall,
    And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
    And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
                Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
    And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
    And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
                Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

William Shakespeare - Love's Labours Lost

William Shakespeare – Love’s Labours Lost (LLL V.ii.901)

The poem is near the end of the play, by way of a conclusion, two works are composed for the King of Navarro in praise of the Cuckoo and the Owl, one read by a representation of the Spring and the other by ‘Hiems’ the representation of winter.

Here it is set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Wild Winter Foraging & Chestnuts December 3rd

Chestnut. Image by Angela from Pixabay

In Lia Leendertz’ lovely ‘The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2022’ she lists the following as in season for foraging:

Crab Apples and sweet chestnuts
Roots: Dandelion, horseradish, Jerusalem Artichokes, and wild garlic
Wild Greens: chickweed, dandelion, and wintercress
Game: Hare, rabbit, pheasant, and venison

Sweet Chestnuts were introduced by the Romans and have long been a feature of Christmas. They can be ‘baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved’. You need to prepare them by scoring a cross in them; otherwise they will explode when cooked. They are often sold by street vendors (there is often a seller on the Millennium Bridge on the way to Tate Modern in London) and, in my family, are always a part of the stuffing for the Turkey. They can also be candied, puréed or stored in syrup. (The Woodland Trust Foraging in November and December).

John Evelyn, the 17th Century Diarist and author of a book on trees (Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber) wrote that the nuts were:

‘delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned’

He complained that in England they are chiefly given to pigs to eat.

Chestnut meal was also used for whitening linen and for making starch. Marones, imported from Italy, France, Switzerland, and S. Germany contain 15% sugar and so were used to make a thick syrup and a ‘very usable’ sugar, from which Marons Glacés are made.

The wood of the chestnut is very useful and is/was used for building, pit props, furniture, poles for hops etc. but is nowhere near as long-lasting as oak.

Medically, they were used for treating convulsive coughs such as whooping-cough, where the leaves were infused in a pint of boiling water. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve)

First Published on 3rd December 2022, Revised and republished in December 2023

Winter December 2nd

lullingstone mosaic for winter
Mosaic from Lullingstone Villa, Kent representing winter

This is the second day of Winter.

Winter, meteorologically speaking is described in the Northern Hemisphere as being December, January, and February, which is, of course, a convention rather than a fact. Astronomically, winter starts with the Winter Solstice when the sun is at its lowest and so stretches from around December 21st to the Equinox around March 21st.

Logically, the solstice should be a midpoint of winter rather than the beginning of it, with 6 weeks of winter on either side of it. This is roughly what the Celtic year does, it starts at dusk on 31st October (Halloween/Samhain) and continues to the evening of 31st January (Candlemas/Imbolc). So a Celtic Winter is November, December and January.

As far as the Sun goes this is really correct, but, in fact, because of the presence of the oceans (and to a lesser extent) the earth, the coldest time is not the Solstice when the Sun is at its weakest, but a few weeks later in January. The oceans (and the landmass) retain heat, and so the coldest (and the warmest) periods are offset, so January 13th is probably the coldest day not December 21st.

December comes from the Latin for ten – meaning the tenth month. Of course it is the twelfth month because the Romans added a couple of extra months especially to confuse us. For a discussion on this look at an early blog post which explains the Roman Calendar.

In Anglo-Saxon it is ærra gēola which means the month before Yule. In Gaelic it is An Dùbhlachd – the Dark Days which is part of An Geamhrachd, meaning the winter, and the word comes from an early Celtic term for cold, from an ‘ancient linguistic source for ‘stiff and rigid’’, which describes the hard frosty earth. (see here for a description of the Gaelic Year).

Medieval Liturgical Calendar for December. Note the image at the top which suggests this is the month for hunting bears.

My personal calendar suggests that winter begins on November 5th, because this is the day I generally notice how cold it has suddenly got. This year, my smart meter tells me that winter began in the last week of November.

December and Kalendar of Shepherds December 1st

French 15th Century ‘Kalendar of Shepherds’

December was originally the 10th Month of the unreformed Roman Calendar, now the 12th. For the Christian Church, it’s the period preparing for the arrival of the Messiah into the World. For the Anglo-Saxons it is the month of Yule, the midwinter festival. In Welsh, Rhafgyr, the month of preparation (for the shortest day). In Gaelic, An Mios (or Dudlach or an Dubhlachd) – the Darkness.

For a closer look at the month, I’m turning to the 15th Century Kalendar of Shepherds. Its illustration (see above) for December shows an indoor scene, and is full of warmth as the bakers bake pies and cakes for Christmas. Firewood has been collected, and the Goodwife is bringing something in from the Garden. The stars signs are Sagittarius and Capricorn.

The Venerable Bede has an interesting story (reported in ‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker) in which a Pagan, contemplating converting to Christianity, talks about a sparrow flying into a warm, convivial Great Hall, from the bitter cold winter landscape. The sparrow enjoys this warmth, but flies straight out, back into the cold Darkness. Human life is like this brief period in the light, warm hall, preceded and followed by cold, unknown darkness. If Christianity, can offer some certainty as to what happens in this darkness, then it’s worth considering.

This contrast between the warm inside and the cold exterior is mirrored in Neve’s Almanack of 1633 who sums up December thus:

This month, keep thy body and head from cold: let thy kitchen be thine Apothecary; warm clothing thy nurse; merry company thy keepers, and good hospitality, thine Exercise.

Quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightly

The Kaledar of Shepherds text below gives a vivid description of December weather and then elaborates on the last six years of a man’s life, with hair going white, body ‘crooked and feeble’. The conceit here is that there are twelve months of the year, and a man’s lot of ‘Six score years and ten’ is allocated six years to each month. So December is not just about the 12th Month of the Year but also the last six years of a person’s allotted span. The piece allows the option of living beyond 72, ‘and if he lives any more, it is by his good guiding and dieting in his youth.’ Good advice, as we now know. But living to 100 is open to but few.

Kalendar of Shepherds

The longer description of December (shown below) by Breton in 1626 gives a detailed look at the excesses of Christmas, who is on holiday, and who working particularly hard. But it concludes it is a costly month.

Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626 – December

The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.

To see the full Kalendar, go here:

How to Take Eels in Winter, Eel Pies and Islands 28th November

 Photo by Natalia Gusakova on Unsplash
Photo by Natalia Gusakova on Unsplash

Gervase Markham in his ‘The English Husbandman’ of 1635 provides instructions on how:

To take Eels in Winter, Make a long bottle or tube of Hay, wrapped about Willow boughs, and having guts or garbage in the middles. Which being soaked in the deep water by the river side, after two or three days the eels will be in it and you may tread them out with your feet.

And here is a fascinating article on Eel fishing.

Eel traps at Bray, on the River Thames (Henry Taught 1885)

Aristotle, Freud and the Deep Sargasso Sea

Eels have been eaten for thousands of years, but no one knew where they came from or how they reproduced. Aristotle thought they spontaneously emerged from the mud. Sigmund Freud dissected hundreds of Eels, hoping to find male sex organs. It was only last year, on 19th October 2022 that an article in the science journal Nature entitled ‘First direct evidence of adult European eels migrating to their breeding place in the Sargasso Sea’ was published, proving beyond doubt that the theory that Eels go to the sea near Bermuda to spawn was, incredibly, true.

Eel Pie Island

Eel Pie Island . Ordnance Survey In 1871 to 1882 map series (OS, 1st series at 1:10560: Surrey (Wikipedia)

Eel Pie island is on the Thames, near Twickenham, famous for its Eels, was home to an iconic music venue that hosted most of the great English Bands of the 50s. 60s, and 70s. The roll call of bands here is awesome. The Stones, Cream, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, you name it, they were here:

David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Buddy Guy, Geno Washington, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After, Chicken Shack, and one of my all-time favourite bands. the Savoy Brown Blues Band. The Nice, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Joe Cocker, and the Who. And many more!

Here is a recipe for Baked Eel pie from Richmond, near the famous Eel Pie Island.

Jellied Eels and the East End

By JanesDaddy (Ensglish User) - English Wikipedia - [1], CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1663124
By JanesDaddy (Ensglish User) – English Wikipedia – [1], CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1663124

Jellied Eels have been a staple of East End diets since the 18th Century. They were to be found in many stalls dotted around the East End, from vendors venturing into pubs and in Pie and Mash shops. Tubby Isaacs is perhaps, the most famous and jellied eels are still sold in a diminishing number of places in the East End.

My mum loved them. It took me until I was over 60 before I could bring myself to try them and have not wanted to repeat, what for me, was a revolting experience. On the River Lee Navigation is another piece of Eel history which is the excellent Fish and Eel Pub at Dobbs Weir.

Pie and Mash Shop. Established 1862, closed down 2021. Broadway Market, Hackney (photo, copyright the author)

This was first published as part of another post in 2022, and revised and republished on 28th November 2023

Murmurations of Starlings and Queen Branwen November 26th

Starlings Photo by Rhys Kentish on Unsplash

Starlings begin to roost in September but their numbers increase as November passes. The RSPB says:

They mainly choose to roost in places which are sheltered from harsh weather and predators, such as woodlands, but reed beds, cliffs, buildings and industrial structures are also used. During the day however, they form daytime roosts at exposed places such as treetops, where the birds have good all-round visibility.

RSPB Website

Early evening, up to 100,000 birds will rise above their roosts wheeling and turning in tight formations. Starling numbers have been declining because of ‘loss of permanent pasture, increased use of farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites in many parts of the UK.’2022 was a particularly bad year but, a count in Brighton in March 2023, suggests numbers were considerable up on 2022. (Starling Numbers Up)

See the above RSPB website for more information which also contains video.

Sacred Birds

Starlings were sacred to the Celts and were used for divination by the Romans – their augurs scrutinised the geometric patterns made by the murmurations to interpret the will of the Gods. In the Welsh Mabinogian a starling appears in the story of Bran, God-King of prehistoric Britain and his sister, Branwen, who was married to the King of Ireland.

To cut a long story short, (a version of which you can read on my February 18th’s blog post here), Branwen was banished to the scullery. So she trained a starling to send a message to her brother. He took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but Bran was mortally wounded in the battle that followed. He told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill, London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, but the journey home took 90 years. At last they got to London and his head was buried on the White Hill, near the Tower of London, and as long as it were there Britain was safe from invasion. This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’

I am giving a Walk on the Myths, legends, and Archaeology of London, for London Walks on 4th February.

Shakespeare and Starlings

Shakespeare in Henry IV Part 1 has Hotspur, annoyed with Bolinbroke say:

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘ Mortimer,’ and give it him

Now if you think the idea of a talking starling is nonsense have a look at this video.

Time to Gather Yarrow – November 13th

Yarrow
(achillea millefolium) – image by CongerDesign

Time to gather yarrow which is often still flowering. It grows everywhere creeping through its roots and spreading with its seeds, until it becomes a garden weed.

Traditionally, it has a myriad of uses (see thefreedictionary for a comprehensive list). It was used for wounds (aka ‘Soldier’s Woundwort’); staunches nose bleeds (aka ‘Nosebleed’); inflammations (aka ‘Bloodwort’); hair lose, tooth-ache and good for those who cannot hold their water. But generally it was considered excellent for stomach problems, diabetes, periods pains, anything to do with blood flow.

It also has a devilish tradition so used for divination by spells, and thus aka Devil’s Nettle, Devil’s Plaything, Bad Man’s Plaything.

On a gentler note, lovers will put it under their pillow and dream, thereby, of their future spouse. (Mrs Grieve)

First published on 14 November 2022, revised 13 November 2023

Enjoying a St Martin Summer; a Halloween Summer or an Indian Summer – November 12th

Autumn leaves

A late warm patch is now often called an ‘Indian Summer’. This term was first used in the United States in the 19th Century and may refer to a warm period in which Indigenous Americans could continue hunting.

Previously, in England, a warm patch in the Autumn was called a ‘St Martin Summer’ or ‘a Halloween Summer.’ St Martin’s Day is the 11th November, and is, in a normal year, the day around when the weather turns to feel wintry.

A warm spell is, in fact beneficial to many plants. The problem comes if it is followed by a quick cold spell. Plants need time to harden off to prepare to face cold weather. A warm winter will also allow a lot of insects to survive and so in the summer plants will be adversely affected by a plague of pests.

For more information on how mild weather affects plants:

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