The Celtic harvest festival on August 1st takes its name from the Irish god Lugh, one of the chief gods of the Tuatha De Danann, giving us Lughnasadh in Ireland, Lunasdál in Scotland, and Laa Luanys in the Isle of Man. (In Wales, this time is known simply as Gwl Awst, the August Feast.)
Lugh dedicated this festival to his foster-mother, Tailtiu, the last queen of the Fir Bolg, who died from exhaustion after clearing a great forest so that the land could be cultivated. When the men of Ireland gathered at her death-bed, she told them to hold funeral games in her honor. As long as they were held, she prophesied Ireland would not be without song. Tailtiu’s name is from Old Celtic Talantiu, “The Great One of the Earth,” suggesting she may originally have been a personification of the land itself, like so many Irish goddesses. In fact, Lughnasadh has an older name, Brón Trogain, which refers to the painful labor of childbirth. For at this time of year, the earth gives birth to her first fruits so that her children might live.
Tailtiu gives her name to Teltown in County Meath, where the festival was traditionally held in early Ireland. It evolved into a great tribal assembly, attended by the High King, where legal agreements were made, political problems discussed, and huge sporting contests were held on the scale of an early Olympic Games. Artists and entertainers displayed their talents, traders came from far and wide to sell food, farm animals, fine crafts and clothing, and there was much storytelling, music, and high-spirited revelry, according to a medieval eye-witness account: “Trumpets, harps, hollow-throated horns, pipers, timpanists, unwearied…fiddlers, gleemen, bone-players and bag-pipers, a rude crowd, noisy, profane, roaring and shouting.”
This was also an occasion for handfastings ( trial marriages). Young men and women lined up on either side of a wooden gate in a high wall, in which a hole was carved, large enough for a hand. One by one, girl and boy would grasp a hand in the hole, without being able to see who was on the other side. They were now married, and could live together for year and day if they were so inclined and if it worked out the couple returned to next year’s gathering and officially separated by standing back to back and walking away from each other.
Throughout the centuries, the grandeur of Teltown dwindled away, but all over Ireland, right up to the middle of this century, country-people have celebrated the harvest at revels, wakes, and fairs – and some still continue today! It was usually celebrated on the nearest Sunday to August 1st, so that a whole day could be set aside from work. In later, the festival of Lughnasadh was christianized as Lammas, from the Anglo-Saxon, hlaf-mas, “Loaf-Mass,” but in rural areas, it was often remembered as “Bilberry Sunday,” for this was the day to climb the nearest “Lughnasadh Hill” and gather the earth’s freely-given gifts of the little black berries, which they might wear as special garlands or gather in baskets to take home for jam.
As of old, people sang and danced jigs and reels to the music of melodeons, fiddles and flutes, and held uproarious sporting contests and races. In some places, a woman—or an effigy of one—was crowned with summer flowers and seated on a throne, with garlands strewn at her feet. Dancers whirled around her, touching her garlands or pulling off a ribbon for good luck. In this way, perhaps, the ancient goddess of the harvest was still remembered with honor.
Recipes for Lughnasadh traditional Irish fare!
Because Lughnasadh is a celebration of the new harvest, people cooked special ritual and festive meals.
HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES
Lammas Curds (Crowdie)
The Lammas Bannock
In some parts of Ireland, the Feast of Lughnasadh came to be called Colcannon Sunday. Colcannon is a dish made from the first digging of potatoes. The person cooking would be required to put on a special white apron kept for the occasion. , boiled a huge pot of potatoes over the fire, and mashed them with a wooden mallet. Often, they were seasoned with onions, garlic or cabbage. The cooked vegetables we
1 medium cabbage, quartered and core removed
2 lb potatoes, scrubbed and sliced with skins left on
2 medium leeks, thoroughly washed and sliced
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoons each mace, salt, pepper
2 garlic cloves
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and boil the cabbage until tender, about 12-15 minutes. Drain off the water and chop the cabbage. Set aside.
Bring another pot of water to a boil and boil the potatoes until tender. Drain off the water and set aside.
Put the leeks in a saucepan, cover with the milk, bring close to boiling and then turn down to a simmer until tender. Set aside.
Add the mace, salt and pepper, and garlic to the pot with the potatoes and mash well with a hand masher. Now add the leeks and their milk and mix in with the potatoes, taking care not to break down the leeks too much. Add a little more milk if necessary to make it smooth. Now mash in the cabbage and lastly the butter. The texture that you want to achieve is smooth-buttery-potato with interesting pieces of leek and cabbage well distributed in it.
Transfer the whole mixture to an ovenproof dish, make a pattern on the surface and place under the broiler to brown.
After the first mouthful, Irish families might call out, “Destruction to the Red-haired Hag!” The red-haired hag is a personification of hunger.
If you have mashed potatoes left over, you can turn them into another traditional Irish dish.
Boxty (Potato Griddle Cakes) – makes12 x 3-inch pancakes (4 to 6 servings)
1 cup hot unseasoned mashed potatoes
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup grated unpeeled raw potatoes
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup milk
Butter or margarine, for frying
In large bowl mix together mashed potatoes and 2 tablespoons butter. Stir in eggs and grated potatoes, then the flour, baking powder, salt, caraway seeds and pepper. Blend in milk. Heat 1 tablespoon butter to sizzling in large nonstick skillet. Drop potato mixture, about 2 1/2 tablespoons at a time, into skillet to form pa tties. Flatten slightly. Fry over medium-high heat until crisp and browned, turning once. Repeat with remaining potato mixture, adding butter to skillet as needed.Serve hot.
An old rhyme goes:
Boxty on the griddle,
boxty in the pan,
if you can’t make boxty,
you’ll never get a man.
Bilberries, ( fraocháin, blaeberries, blueberries, whortleberries,) the first wild fruits, were a sign of the earth’s covenant with her children, so it was very important to gather and share them with the community. In early Ireland, bilberries were sent as tribute to the High King, according to the medieval Book of Rights:
On the calends of August to the king
Were brought from each respective district,
… the heath-fruit of Brigh-Leithe;
Quantities were eaten on the way up to the Lughnasadh hill of assembly, but the ones that managed to make it down might be made into jam or “fraughan cakes” or simply mashed with cream. A special treat was bilberry wine, which was most enjoyed by lovers, and had the reputation for hastening on the wedding! As was typical in a more neighborly society, some were set aside for those who could not make the climb. And some were also left behind on a special cairn or rock as an offering to an old, almost-forgotten god who first brought the harvest to Ireland.
Here’s a recipe for traditional blaeberry jam that comes from Scotland. Wild blaeberries (vaccinium myrtillus) are much smaller and tarter than the commercial blueberry, but the rhubarb in this recipe adds sharpness and texture.
2 lb blaeberries
2 lb preserving sugar
Wash, trim and roughly chop the rhubarb, put it into a pan and cook gently until it starts to soften. Stir in the sugar and when it has dissolved add the blaeberries and bring the jam to the boil. Boil it rapidly for up to 20 minutes to setting point. Cool slightly then pour into clean warm jars, cover, label and store.
(Test for setting point: test the jam by placing a spoonful on a plate, letting it cool and then pushing the surface with your finger: if it wrinkles the jam is ready)
From: Janet Warren, A feast of Scotland, Lomond Books,1990, ISBN 1-85051-112-8.
5. Lammas Curds
In the Scottish Highlands, when the cattle were brought down to the strath, (valley) from their summer pastures on the hills, mothers gave their children and all others returned from the sheilings a small cheese of curds made from that day’s milk, for luck and good-will. More curds and butter were specially prepared for the high feast later that day. The Lammas cheese was probably a kind of crowdie. Caraway seeds can be added to the recipe below to give it the authentic flavoring.
Put two pints (40 fl.oz.) of freshly sour or thick milk into a pan and place on a slow heat and watch until it curdles. Do not allow the milk to simmer or boil otherwise the curds will harden. When the curd sets let it cool before you attempt draining the whey.
Line a colander with a clean muslin cloth and transfer the curds into it and leave until most of the whey has drained before squeezing the last of the whey out by hand. Mix the crowdie with a little salt until it has a smooth texture. Now blend the crowdie with a little cream and place the mixture in a dish and allow to rest in a refrigerator.
6. The Lammas Bannock
In Scotland, the first fruits were celebrated by the making of a ‘bonnach lunastain’ or Lunasdál bannock, or cake. In later times, the bannock was dedicated to Mary, whose feastday, La Feill Moire, falls on August 15th, two days later than the date of Lammas according to the old reckoning. A beautiful ceremony, which, no doubt, had pagan origins, attended the cutting of the grain (usually oats or bere.) In the early morning, the whole family, dressed in their best, went out to the fields to gather the grain for the ‘Moilean Moire,’ the ‘fatling of Mary.’ They laid the ears on a sunny rock to dry, husked them by hand, winnowed them in a fan, ground them in a quern, kneaded them on a sheepskin, and formed them into a bannock. A fire was kindled of rowan or another sacred wood to toast the bannock, then it was divided amongst the family, who sang a beautiful paean to Mother Mary while they circled the fire in a sunwise direction.
Here is a modern recipe you can try:
8 oz flour
4 oz butter
2 oz caster sugar
1oz chopped almonds
1oz mixed candied peel
Set oven to 325F/Gas 3. Grease a baking sheet. Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the sugar and butter and rub in to form a dough. Add the almonds and mix in the peel, making sure they are evenly distributed. Form into a thick round on a lightly floured surface and prick all over with a fork. Place on the sheet and bake for about 45-60 minutes. Allow to cool and serve sliced thinly and buttered.
7. Cawl Cynhaeaf
In Wales, harvest celebrations were not for the weak-stomached. An 18thc account describes a feast of ‘the contents of a brewing pan of beef and mutton, with arage and potatoes and pottage, and pudding of wheaten flour, about twenty gallons of light ale and over twenty gallons of beer.’ After this, the guests were expected to drink more beer and dance to the music of the fiddle. Well, harvesting was very hard work, but for our more sedentary modern lifestyle, here is a low-fat version:
Cawl Cynhaeaf – Harvest Broth
2 1/2lbs. Welsh neck of lamb
1/2lb broad beans
1 medium carrot
1 small turnip
1 small cauliflower
5 sprigs of parsley
1 qt. water
salt and pepper
Remove as much fat as possible from the meat. Place the meat in a large saucepan and cover with the water.Bring to the boil and skim any fat from the surface of the liquid. Shell the peas and beans. Peel and dice the carrot, onion and turnip. Add the vegetables,
except the cauliflower, to the meat. Season. Cover the saucepan and simmer slowly for 3 hours. 30 minutes before serving the broth, cut the cauliflower into sprigs and add to the saucepan. Serve hot decorated with sprigs of parsley.
From: Country Cookery – Recipes from Wales by Sian Llewellyn.