Sunday 4 May 2008

What does a pagan eat anyway?

When we lived in Edinburgh, we once went to the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill which is held on 30 April each year. It was a riot of colours, flowers, flames, and strange characters. I don’t remember it well but it was great fun.

Far clearer in my memories are the Beltane celebrations in Peebles which are held in June. We would visit his parents each year, marvel at the houses decorated in red and white, and watch the parade. The parade includes many floats of school children (including the Beltane Queen) and the onlookers throw sweeties at the kids, or the kids throw sweeties at the onlookers, or maybe they just throw them to and fro.

The Beltane is a Celtic-Gaelic Festival that was traditionally celebrated the start of the summer pastoral season when livestock was driven into summer pastures. Beltane translates as ‘bright/sacred fire’ and the villagers would put out all fires and light a need-fire on a hill. I was interested to read that cattle were driven through two fires to purify them. It reminds me of the Australian Aboriginal’s smoking ceremony which is to cleanse people and places. The Beltane has echoes around the world with other traditions celebrating May Day.

In our house we have been listening to a lot of neo-folk on the stereo, watching the Wickerman DVD and have a Green Man watching over our backyard. So it came as no surprise that E suggested we have a meal to celebrate the Beltane on 1 May this year. Firstly I pondered the Antipodean dilemma of whether we celebrate these Northern Hemisphere festivals by the calendar or the season. Given that we are celebrating memory, rather than driving our animals into green pastures, I feel it is reasonable to celebrate ‘summer’ in our ‘autumn’. The next challenge was to work out what was appropriate food for a pagan festival.

So I did some research on the internet and found that some of the common and practical ingredients were oats, barley, dairy, honey and berries. (Honey cakes for the faeries, woodruff, elderflower and dandelion were about as likely to be seen in our house as Morris Dancing.) It seems these are foods that symbolize fertility of summer. So here is what I served.

Four-Grain Tomato Soup – I chose this because it had barley and I felt the red colour and mixture of grains was in the spirit of the Beltane. I did enjoy the quinoa and millet in the soup as well. It was wonderfully stodgy with lots of texture and flavour – more wintery than summery which suits our cool autumnal days.

I made this the night before. I threw all the ingredients in the pot just before sitting down to watch the IT Crowd. I used less water than Nava Atlas instructed and got so caught up in the madcap humour of this brilliant British sitcom that I didn’t watch the soup as I should. It burnt on the bottom of the pot (see photo) and I had to scrape it into a smaller saucepan so I didn’t have enough room to add the little extra water it needed. It was ok with me but we were able to eat our soup with a fork!

Oatcakes – I have wanted to make oatcakes for ages so was pleased to have an excuse. Unfortunately I lost the recipe a friend gave me last year and had to turn to the internet. I used what seemed a standard Scottish recipe which had lots of butter and flour as well as oatmeal. I did see other interesting recipes for oatcakes – one by Joanna without butter (but it took too long) and one by June without flour (but I didn’t have the finer oatmeal).

I made the oatcakes in a star shape as a nod to the pentagram. They were very nubbly, flat and rich with butter. A good accompaniment to the soup. I thought the dough might make a nice shortcrust pastry. Next time I would be interested to try Joanna’s recipe. Anna at Baking for Britain had some great information (if you scroll down from the link) about the Scottish reliance on the girdle, oats and barley being traditional Scottish grains, and the disinclination of oats to rise due to the lack of gluten. I forgot to serve the oatcakes with cheese but there was plenty of butter in them to satisfy the dairy requirements of the Beltane.

Cress and Berry Salad – actually it was barely a salad. I tossed some strawberries on a bed of watercress and drizzled with raspberry vinegar. Then I scattered some rose petals around the edges. Rose petals came up in the recipes but I had to instruct E that these were just for show and not to be eaten as I was not going to vouch for the grocer’s roses being chemical free. The berries and cress represented summer and colour in the meal.

Meade – An ancient alcoholic drink of honey and spices. I felt a little foolish asking for it at King and Godfreys. But instead of giving me a ‘oh-no-not-another-pagan-celebrating-the-beltane’ look, they cheerfully directed me to their finest bottles. We drank it warm. It reminded me a little of mulled wine but lighter and sweeter. The bottle also recommends drinking it with ginger ale which we are yet to try. I found an interesting recipe that might be made with or without alcohol - I hope to try it some time.

We set the table with roses, red serviettes, a stone candleholder and a dragon candleholder. Dinner was eaten by candlelight accompanied by one of E’s neo-folk CDs. It felt suitably pagan.

Scottish Oatcakes
(From Wicca 101)
Makes about 2 dozen small oatcakes

- 1 cup oatmeal (or rolled oats)
- 1 cup plain flour
- ½ teaspoon bicarbonate soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 125g butter, chilled and cut into chunks*
- 2 - 3 tablespoons cold water

Place oatmeal, flour, bicarb, and salt in a mixing bowl. Rub (or cut) butter into oatmeal and flour mixture. The recipe said til it resembled fine breadcrumbs but I found that by the time I had rubbed it in the mixture was almost a ball of pastry already because there was so much butter. Add water a tablespoon at a time and mix until you have a stiff dough.

Roll until 1/8 inch thick on lightly floured surface. Use a knife or cutter to make into 1 inch oatcakes. (I used star shaped cutter but a round cutter would be fine or you can cut into squares or wedges with a knife.)

Place on ungreased baking tray and bake at 190 C (375 F) until they barely start to brown - 12 to 15 minutes. You can also cook them on a girdle on the stovetop just until the edges curl but they remain a pale fawn colour. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with cheese or soup or dip.

*You could substitute margarine for butter - I often do in this sort of recipe but haven't tried it in this one.

Four-Grain Tomato Soup(adapted from Vegetarian Soups for all Seasons by Nava Atlas)
Serves 4-8 (depending if served as main or side)

- 1-2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 celery sticks, diced
- 2 medium carrots, sliced
- 1 medium potato, diced
- 1 medium turnip (swede), diced
- 2 x 400g tins of diced tomatoes
- ¼ cup raw brown rice*
- ¼ cup raw quinoa*
- ¼ cup raw millet*
- ¼ cup raw pearl barley*
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp vegetable stock powder
- 6 cups water (I just used enough water to fill the two tomato tins)
- ¼ cup fresh dill, chopped
- salt and fresh black pepper to serve

* Nava Atlas also suggests wild rice as an alternative grain. If you wanted a gluten free version you could substitute wild rice for pearl barley.

Heat oil in a stockpot and fry onions at medium heat for about 5 minutes til starting to soften. Add remaining ingredients except dill. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30-60 minutes until grains and vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally to make sure the soup doesn’t catch on the bottom of the saucepan. Add dill and simmer an additional 10-20 minutes. Season. (I simmered the soup 30 minutes and let it cool and sit overnight. Then I just added the dill when I began heating the soup the next day but didn’t simmer.)

On the stereo:
Looking for Europe: the neofolk compendium: Various Artists


  1. Morn, Johanna- How I love the IT crowd! You make me want to watch all the episodes over again.

    Fabulous soup recipe-shall do more than star it shall print it and try it (hopefully, this week)

  2. So that's what a Beltane celebration is! Johanna, this is a great little me thinking...

    Haven't seen the Wickerman in years. My heart breaks for poor Edward Woodward just thinking about his uptight policeman's role!

    Such an enjoyable post.

  3. Ha ha! I have done that to soup so many times! It's easily done, I love the IT crowd too so I understand! I'm sure it was yummy though, if a little thick and the salad looks great too. I also have a soft spot for mead!!

  4. Thanks Pixie - isn't the IT Crowd fantastic - gives me a good laugh when dealing with the IT people at work (and I wish I could say the show is all fiction!). This is a great recipe for using up all the grains that hang about the pantry.

    thanks Lucy - the celtic-gaelic celebrations are interesting the way they remind us of how much our lives were affected by the seasons - made me sad how little that is the case now! We've been watching the Wickerman commentary on the DVD which is very interesting!

    Thanks Helen - I can easily get distracted while soup is bubbling away - I find the timer helps me remember sometimes - my predilection for thick soups probably makes them more likely to stick! Nothing a good glass of mead can't fix :-)

  5. What a fun idea--sounds like a great meal and celebration! Your oatcakes recipe is very similar to the one my sister gave me (except the oats are ground in a food processor in hers)--I WILL get around to making them some time!

    Love the sound of the soup as well (minus the burnt bottom, of course!! I can't tell you how many pots I have sitting at the back of the cupboard because I burnt something and couldn't get all the blackened bits off--apparently you can buy a special cleaner, but who has the time?). I've had luck with Nava's recipes so far, so will give this one a go.

  6. What an amazing post! I love it that you were so inventive in recreating the spirit of the festival (which was a new one to me). And the food sounds amazing too. We like a good glass of mead as well, but haven't had it in ages - I'm going to keep an eye out for some now...

  7. How I love oatcakes! And your four grain soup is just perfect! Another must try. Thanks Johanna.

  8. thanks Ricki - had been wondering if your oatcakes were similar as am interested in the different recipes! Burnt saucepans are no fun! I got this saucepan clean but heating cold water in it and then scraping it clean after the water boiled - have you ever tried that?

    thanks Lysy - I think necessity was the mother of invention here as I couldn't really find much to help me create a meal here but was pleased with the result! And it was a great reason to try mead which is my sort of drink!

    Thanks Lisa - I can imagine oatcakes would be right up your street - and I was quite confident about using quinoa in soup after seeing your quinoa soup recipe that I must make some time!

  9. Reading this post makes me think that my recipe would probably work just as well if you speeded things up and raised the oven temperature. I'll try it and report back ...

    Love that tomato soup - winter food for May: essential ;)


  10. thanks Joanna - would love to try it the slow way some time but will be interested if it does work with a higher tempt and less time


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