November is now upon us; the clocks have gone back and winter is approaching fast. Down here at Bluestone, however, the sun is shining; it’s a lovely mild morning, and all is right with the world. And even if it is likely get a little bit chillier over the coming weeks, our resident historian/storyteller, Terry John, has a couple of recipes to keep those cockles warmed.
If you are visiting Bluestone on 5 November to enjoy the Guy Fawkes celebrations, you might be surprised to know that, in many rural areas of Wales up until the 19th century, the proper date for lighting bonfires in November was the first day of the month, and the ritual had nothing to do with the man who tried to blow up Parliament. He was remembered on 5 November by the ringing of church bells and by the chanting of the well-known verse:
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
The fires blazing on the hill-tops and on village greens on 1 November, All Hallows’ Day, commemorated something entirely different. People were marking the beginning of winter. This was a dead time, when little would grow in the way of foodstuffs and whatever had been gathered in at harvest had to be preserved. During the medieval period, November was the month when farmers slaughtered any of the livestock that could not be fed through the winter. The traditional curing of meat, by salting or smoking, took place around 11 November, St Martin’s Day. Ham was preserved in brine or sugar, sausages were hung up in the fireplace to cure, cheeses were rolled in spices to keep them fresh and a stew called frumenty or furmentie was prepared. It was thick and nourishing, especially for those who still had to work in the fields sowing a winter crop. The recipe is given below – but be warned! The medieval recipe I consulted doesn’t bother with exact amounts, so be prepared to experiment. Also, if you follow the original recipe to the letter, it can be hard work – you may want a stiff gin and tonic afterwards.
In some areas, St Martin’s Day was also known as Pack-rag Day, because it was often the final day of hiring agreements. Farm workers anxious to find new employment would pack all their belongings into a bundle and set off to the Hiring Fairs in the hope of finding something better.
At Templeton, just a few miles from Bluestone, a traditional fair was held every 12 November. The highlight of the fair was the making of Katt Pie, a famous local delicacy. A delicious combination of suet pastry enclosing mutton, currants and brown sugar, Katt Pies were usually made as individual items, but you could make one large pie using shortcrust pastry. A recipe is given below.
In past centuries, the winter months were taken up on local farms with a variety of tasks that couldn’t be done during the harvest. The hedger, a man skilled in his craft, was a common sight along the lanes and hedgerows. With his billhook, he sliced part-way through the younger, more supple branches from the hawthorn, hazel and elder growing along the banks and drew them down, interweaving them horizontally to form a long, low fence. The initial cuts he made were carefully judged and were always made on the underside of the branches, to protect it from the weather. Using the butt end of an axe or a maul, a club-like mallet, he would drive upright stakes into the bank to form supports for the interwoven branches.
Ditches were cleared, repairs to cowsheds and outbuildings were carried out, fields were manured and marled, wood was stockpiled, bracken was gathered in for cattle bedding and sedge was cut for use in thatching. There was a third and last ploughing of the fields and stubble was collected for thatching or mixed with hay as fodder or ploughed into the soil and rotted as fertiliser.
During the autumn the tenant farmers waited in some trepidation for the appearance of the steward of the Slebech estate, which owned the land where Bluestone now stands. It was usual to carry out the annual farm valuations at this time of the year and a tenant who had failed to keep up a good standard of maintenance on his land holding was likely to be given notice to quit. On the other hand, too many improvements could result in an increased valuation and a higher rent and a farmer might find himself evicted if he could not meet the increase.
On a happier note, the Sunday before Advent Sunday, which falls on the nearest Sunday to 30 November, was the traditional day to start the Christmas pudding. Everyone in the family took a turn at stirring the pudding and made a wish as they did so. The wish was never revealed to anyone and three silver threepenny pieces were added to the mixture. The pudding was made from 13 ingredients, one for Jesus and one for each of the Apostles. Thirteen puddings were made and the last one, the Judas pudding, was always thrown away.
Clean grains of wheat in warm water, wrap them in a cloth and beat them strongly with a pestle until the chaff has separated and wash it well and cook it in water. (Or you can cheat and avoid all this by using barley!)
Whatever you do, boil the wheat or barley slowly in milk, stirring frequently. Allow to cool a little and add ‘a great quantity of well-beaten egg yolks’, stirring until everything is well mixed. (About 6 should do it, but it depends on how thick you want the end result to be). You can then add any spices you want, perhaps cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or saffron.
Some recipes mention the adding of brown sugar and even ‘venison water’ – beef or chicken stock might be an alternative. Judging by the various recipes I’ve looked at, there were lots of variations, but whatever you choose to tip into the mixture, the frumenty should end up being quite thick and yellowish in colour. People used to eat it hot or cold.
1lb plain flour
Half a pound suet
Good pinch of salt
Half a pound of minced mutton (if you don’t like mutton, try lamb or beef)
Half a pound of currants
Same amount of brown sugar
Salt and pepper
Make hot-water pastry by boiling suet in water, add to flour and salt, stirring well with a wooden spoon. Leave to cool and make into pies about 4 inches diameter. Place alternate layers of mutton, currants and sugar into the pastry cases and cover each one with a round of thin pastry. Bake at Gas Mark 7, 425F or 220C for 20 to 30 minutes.