Thursday, 29 September 2011

Mop Fairs and Mock Goose

Jacob Epstein's sculpture of the
Archangel Michael at
Coventry Cathedral

Today is Michaelmas, the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, so please make sure you have picked all your blackberries! According to legend, the Devil landed in a blackberry bush when St Michael threw him out of Paradise, and was so badly scratched he spat on the plant, making the fruit inedible - so you cannot eat them after September 29!

When  I was a child we had a blackberry bush in the garden, and an apple tree, and we used to gather blackberries from fields and hedgerows, and my mother used to bake the most wonderful blackberry and apple pies, but we never worried about old stories like this, and nor did anyone else. As long as the fruit was ripe it got eaten, no matter what the date was.

There are all kinds of rhymes and proverbs connected to Michaelmas, and many of them are concerned with the weather. Sunshine on St Michael’s Day indicates a fine winter, while light winds mean there will be no snow at Christmas: but be warned, yet another old tradition maintains that if St Michael brings lots of acorns it will snow for the festive season – and so don’t ask what happens if there are light winds, sun and lots of acorns!

St Michael the Archangel was the captain of the Host of Heaven, who defeated Satan and the fallen angels, and is therefore the patron of knights and warriors, as well as the sick, mariners and grocers (is that why the Marks and Spencer label is St Michael I wonder?). He is usually shown with a sword, battling with Satan or a dragon – like Jacob Epstein’s fantastic sculpture mounted on the outside wall of Coventry Cathedral, which is the most amazing building and well worth a visit.

Michaelmas is one of the four ‘quarter days’ of the year, when tenants paid their quarterly rent and servants were hired at ‘Mop Fairs’ when they donned their best clothes and carried tools associated with their trade. In some areas the festivities were held at the end of September, but in others people continued to hold the event in October, on the date of ‘old’ feast day before the calendar was changed.
Blackberries - cook them with apples
and bake a delicious pie.

It was thought lucky to eat a goose, fattened on stubble left in the fields after harvest, so traditional goose fairs also occur on both dates, marking the start of autumn and the approach of winter. Apparently, in times gone by people believed ‘Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day, Want not for money all the year’, which seems to discriminate against vegetarians like me, but may account for the fact that I never have any money!

During the Second World War geese (which were popular at Christmas as well as Michaelmas) must have been in short supply, like many other foods, because old recipe books feature mock goose , along with mock cream, mock apricots (carrots and flavouring), mock bananas and other similar delicacies. Anyway, mock goose usually seems to have been a kind of cheese and potato pie, involving potatoes, cheese, apples and sage. However, in his TV programme Ration Book Cooking Valentine Warner used red lentils and breadcrumbs, with onion and sage, which is quite pleasant, but much better with the addition of grated cheese. Neither recipe, it should be emphasized, resembles goose in any way, shape or form.

So there is plenty of choice to mark the feast day. Cook a goose, or blackberries, or the wartime veggie version... with a glass of wine... and you could dip into Milton’s Paradise Lost (the easiest place to find Michael the Archangel is where he offers advice on life, the universe and everything  to  Adam and Eve)... or you could start reading Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials,  which was inspired by Milton ‘s epic poem. 
If you want to roast a goose check out this Delia Smith recipe

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