Midsummer and Seasonal Festival Food

I have been thinking recently about what foods were associated with each early modern seasonal festival. This isn’t easy as it involves getting into the mindset of people who were much more dependent on and subject to season cycles, agriculture, and the threat of starvation. They also had very different belief systems when it came to the ritual year, combining Christianity with earlier seasonal rhythms. I will write about each seasonal festival/marker point throughout the year starting from Midsummer. Generally, a very brief outline of festive foods is as follows:

August – Lammas (the start of the harvest) – Bread

September – Michaelmas (the end of the harvest) – Goose

November – Halloween/Hallowtide (All Hallows/Saints Day and All Souls Day) – Apples and soul cakes

December/January – the twelve days of Christmas – preserved foods, beef, plum pottage, wassail

March – Mother’s Day (the Annunciation of Mary – when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel – nine months before Christmas Day) which was also associated with Lady Day and fell in the middle of Lent – simnel cakes

Easter – following Lent, the Ressurection of Christ, and also marking new births of livestock – lamb and spiced fruit breads

May Day – celebrating new growth, the coming of Summer around the corner – cream to mark the start of the dairy season (including white pot)

June – Midsummer – the Summer solstice – flower and herb preservation – when they are at their most potent.

This is a general sweep and I want to add more detail to these as my blog continues.

Turning to Midsummer, the celebrations around the solstice would coincide with the Christian festivals of St John’s Day (24 June) and St Paul’s and St Peter’s Day (29 June). This would be a worrying period for people as there was the risk of crop failures, seasonal diseases in hot weather (with more people travelling) and the traditional period when armies would mobilise in good weather. People associated these summer misfortunes with evil spirits and so a lot of the celebrations would be combined with efforts to ward off these diabolic threats. Bonfires would be lit to scare away spirits but these would also prove effective at killing pests that could decimate crops. Entrances would be topped with garlands of St John’s wort, fern, fennel, lilies, and birch foliage to stop spirits entering homes. Cartwheels would be lit and rolled down hillsides to divinate on whether crops would be successful or not. If the wheel got to the bottom still lit that was a good sign.

Herbs and flowers at Little Moreton Hall. We would sort the previous year’s dried collection and turn them into pot pourri. The new season’s plants we would hang up to dry as part of the seasonal rhythms of the home.

The use of flowers, herbs, and foliage in this way to protect may come from the fact that many plants and flowers were thought to be at their most potent at Midsummer. Therefore this was a good time to start preserving their healing qualities or storing them up for flavourings. This meant candying and crystallising with sugar, pickling, drying herbs or petals, and distilling for waters and oils. So while Midsummer did not have a specific food associated with it, I think of the floral flavours of early modern food, of the rosewater, candied petals, or cyrstallised angelica. Big salads with edible flowers are also great at this time of year and were very fashionable on early modern tables. Borage, marigold, pansies, and nasturiums can all bejewel a summer salad. Strawberries today are ripe around this time of year but these are not the small wild strawberries early modern people would eat. These strawberries would not be ripe for another month or so.

Candied angelica from the garden.

Midsummer can best be summed up by this passage from John Stow’s A Survey of London from 1598:

‘…there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them: the wealthier sort also before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the Vigils [evenings before Saints Days] furnished with sweet bread, and good drink, and on the festival days [St John’s and St Peter and Paul’s Day] with meat and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbours that, being before at controversy [strained relations] were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies, loving friends, as also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air. On the vigil of St John the Baptist and St Peter and Paul the Apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s wort, orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all night, some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps lit at once, which made goodly show.’

The entrance to Little Moreton Hall with protective foilage.

It’s a shame we don’t really celebrate Midsummer in the UK anymore. It would be the perfect summer celebration to punctuate the long gap between the spring festivals we still mark and those of autumn. We should take a leaf out of the Scandinavian book: they still celebrate wholeheartedly at Midsummer with special food such as strawberries, elderflower, salmon, dill potatoes, pickled herring and beetroot salads, dancing round a may pole decorated with flowers. Glad Midsommar!

Lot of information here is taken from Ronald Hutton’s wonderful book The Stations of the Cross: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. It has been the basis for lots of my knowledge on seasonal festivities during the early modern period and is well worth a read.

Another book which has informed this piece in its ability to make clear the rhythms of the year when it came to food is Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book by Hilary Spurling. Spurling uses the receipt book from the first half of the 17th century to detail Elinor’s life and gives contextual information to the recipes, structuring them according to the ebbs and flows of the annual cycle. She also gives tried and tested translations of Elinor’s recipes (which I have enjoyed following). There are lots of recipes on candying, crystallising, preserving, and pickling.

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