Saturday, March 3, 2007

Offering Cakes for March Festivals

A Matronalia Cake

I received an email from a man who wished to celebrate his wife's birthday on 1 March with some of the old traditions from Matronalia, the Feriae Marti and Martisor. Thanks to him, I did some more research on the offerings made during these festivals.

Mars originally was one of the three great gods of the Romans and his birthday was celebrated at the New Year, from 1 March through the 4th. In fact, festivals in honour of Mars were celebrated during most of the month and ended only on 24 March.

An ancient Roman prayer to Mars was: 'Father Mars, I pray and I beseech Thee to be merciful and gracious unto me, and to my house, and to my family. For this, therefore, has the offering been brought through my field, my house, my farm; that Thou might turn away, ward off, remove all sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness, destruction, ruin and untimely influences. Grant good health and strength to me, my house and my family. For this goal, to purify my farm, my land and my ground, and for making expiation, please accept these offerings, Father Mars.'

For this offering, cakes called 'strues' and 'ferta' were given. 'Strues' were 'finger cakes' and it is possible that the sweet biscuits known as 'lady fingers' are the modern equivalent of this ancient offering.

During the first four days of March, the Salii or 'leapers' would carry the shields of Mars in procession through the streets of Rome. Each night at the end of their labours, they would be feasted by a different household. Leaping and the clashing of sword upon shield were characteristics of these processions. It is said that the original shield of Mars fell from heaven. Like many 'stones from heaven', it probably was a meteorite of fair size. The ancillae or shields of Mars were eight-sided. Eight was the number of the Great Goddess Inanna or Ishtar, Queen of Heaven and is the number of Venus, the Morning and Evening Star.

Ovid wrote that celebrations for the birthday of the god Mars included gifts of dates, figs and honey, 'that the year might in sweetness go through the course which it had begun.'

The feast day of Matronalia occurred on the 1st of March as well. This festival was sacred to the Great Mother, Juno. In Ovid's Fasti, the God Mars addressed the poet, declaring that: 'on the hill which now bears the name of Esquiline, a temple was founded, if I remember correctly, on this very day by the Latin matrons in honour of Juno... My mother loves brides. A crowd of mothers throngs my temple. So pious a reason is especially becoming to her and to me. Bring ye flowers to the goddess. This goddess delights in flowering plants... Say, 'Thou, Lucina, has bestowed on us the light of life!' ' This quotation shows how close a relationship existed between Mars and Juno.

On this day were the withered laurels before the temple of Vesta replaced with fresh wreathes and the new Vestal fire rekindled.

On the last day of February in Rome, the 'old Mars' was escorted from the city, a necessary step in order to make way for the birth of the new god Mars on 1 March. In modern Greece, there still are villages where a lame man is named 'February', mounted on a donkey and escorted from the village. Fires are ritually doused on the last night of the month and relit on the morning of 1 March. Ritual washing in morning dew is performed on the 1st of March.

This is similar to the old Eastern European traditions of washing in the snow on the morning of 1 March.

Other rituals involving the death of 'old Mars' or Winter still can be found in different forms. For example, in Poland, there is a ritual in March known as the burning and sinking of 'Marzanna'. This occurs at different dates depending on locality. In Silesia and some regions it occurs on 7 March, but in others as late as the 4th Sunday of Lent, known in Poland as White Sunday, Death Sunday or Black Sunday or on the day of the Vernal Equinox on 21 March.

The Marzanna is a puppet dressed in female garments. Whether the figure is dressed as a man or a woman depends on local custom. In Poland, the 'Marzanna' is a female. A procession is made throughout all the houses in the village with the Marzanna doll bearing a green juniper branch. When night falls, she is escorted from the village accompanied by burning brands of juniper. The doll herself is burned, then flung into the river to be drowned.

This custom in various guises could be found throughout Europe and is described at length in the 'Golden Bough'.

Where food related to these old Roman festivals is concerned, it is interesting to see that many of these customs have survived in the British Isles. For example, in the month of March, there are two traditions derived from the old Roman Matronalia. In reading about Roman offering cakes, I suddenly realised that the old 'similla' cake of ancient Rome is the same cake made for 'Mothering Day' in March. Many may recognise this cake as one that has become a traditional cake for Easter in England but in fact, it is the ancient cake offered to Juno and women on Matronalia.

'Mothering Day' actually may be the old Matronalia itself. In 2007, 'Mothering Day' will fall on the 18th of March. It is said originally to have been a day on which honour was to be paid to the Mother of the Gods, which would make it Matronalia!

'Mothering Sunday' is simply a day for all Mothers now, but in an earlier era, it was the day when apprentices and servants were allowed to have a holiday to perform their filial duty towards their mothers, bringing gifts of Simnel cakes and bouquets of violets and primroses.

A simnel cake actually is the old Matronalia offering cake known as 'similla' for the very fine flour used to make it. The old Roman similla was decorated with twelve balls of almond paste. The modern equivalent uses only 11, ostensibly to represent the 11 apostles who did not betray Christ! Other than that, they appear to be the same cake.

Known as the 'Shrewsbury simnel', the simnel cake is made with white flour, spices and is studded with dried fruits and peel. Covered with sweet almond paste, it traditionally was decorated usually with eleven balls of almond paste. Now, during the Easter season, people often decorate simnel cakes far more lavishly, placing real or artificial flowers or tiny nests filled with eggs or chicks in the centre.
Yellow ribbons often are tied round the cake as well.

A traditional recipe is:

Almond paste:
400 g. icing sugar, sifted
250 g. ground almonds
1 large egg yolk, beaten lightly
3-4 tablespoonse of orange juice, freshly squeezed
5 drops of almond extract

You can purchase marzipan paste instead if you do not wish to make the almond paste but it is not recommended as it will turn to liquid when heated.

250g flour
a pinch of salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
300g currants
300g sultanas
90 g. mixed peel
160g. butter
160g caster sugar
3 large eggs
200 ml milk

Sift flour, salt and spices, then add fruit and peel. Cream butter and sugar thoroughly, then beat eggs into mixture, one by one until fluffy. Stir flour and fruit into the mixture, using milk as needed to moisten it further. It should drop from the spoon when everything has been mixed together.

Placed half of the cake mixture into a round cake tin, then spread half of the almond paste on top. Add the other half of the cake mixture, then bake for 1 1/4 hours in a slow oven at 275F or until fully baked.

When the cake has cooled slightly, cover it with almond paste, keeping enough for the 11 or 12 round balls to decorate the top of the cake. Brush the top of the icing with a little beaten egg yolk then brown under a grill until the almond paste turns golden.

Some recipes include apricots or apricot paste. In order to make the simnel cake more like the ancient Roman offering, I would suggest the substitution of dried figs and apricots for the currants and sultanas used in the modern recipe. Apricots have been associated with immortality and the gods for a long time, and figs always have been considered one of the most magical fruits.

Another culinary tradition for this time of year that can be traced back to neolithic times is the custom of preparing a special soup or stew made of dried peas, lentils or peas mixed with pork or pork bones.

The fifth Sunday in Lent was known as 'Carling Sunday' in Cumbria and other parts of Northern England. On this day, it was the custom to eat a type of pea known as a 'Carling' otherwise reserved for birdseed. The peas are soaked overnight, then brought to a boil and simmered with bacon for at least an hour. In Northumberland, rum and sugar are added. In some places, pubs and private clubs still serve food free on this day.

As Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday have been combined in the new liturgical calendar, Carling Sunday now falls on the 6th Sunday of Lent.

In Nottinghamshire there is an old folk rhyme:

'Care Sunday, Care away
Palm Sunday and Easter Day.'

Another recipe states that the carlings must be soaked overnight in water, boiled well, then fried in butter to be served with vinegar and bread.

Dried beans and lentils always have been traditional winter fare in cultures without refrigeration or the means to acquire fresh vegetables and meat during the winter months. Salted pork would be a means of adding protein and flavour to these legumes. Beyond that, however, the meat or bone represents a 'sacrificial offering' for fertility or the god himself who has died and will be reborn in the Spring. In cases where the bones from the soup are buried in the field when the new seed is sown, the correspondence with ancient sacrifices is very clear.

In fact, 'Carling' soup and Pease Porridge are the same dish. Passion Sunday is called 'Car Sunday' in Scotland, and split pea soup or 'pease porridge' is eaten then.

There is another old rhyme that refers to Lenten repasts:
Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.'

To make 'pease porridge,' simply soak peas in water overnight, then simmer with fresh vegetables and a ham bone for three hours or so, mashing the vegetables and adding salt and pepper to taste.

In the 'Golden Bough', there are many descriptions of special dishes made from beans, peas and pork with special magical significance at this time of the year.

In England, this special dish had some significance in fortune-telling. By tradition, the person who received the last carling in the dish would be the first to marry.

All times of transition are considered to be times both of great power and great danger. Twilight, the moment between day and night is a time of magical transformations, the 'hour between dog and wolf'. The season of transition between Winter and Spring is another time of transformation. For the ancients, it was a time when life itself hung in the balance and a little weight on one side or another might serve to tilt the universe into chaos. Rituals of purification and offering as well as sympathetic enactments were ways by which the people tried to make certain to maintain the rhythm of the seasons.

I had planned to write about the Hindu festival of Holi today, but will do so on another occasion. Suffice it to say that the festival of Holi, the most riotous and colourful celebration of the year, begins tonight with the lighting of bonfires in the puja for Holi. These fires represent the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness.

Holika Dahan preparations begin 40 days before Holi as people collect wood for the bonfires. Effigies of Holika and Prahlad are placed on the bonfire on the eve of Holi, which is tonight. The next morning, on the actual day of Holi, the ashes are collected and smeared on the body as Holi Prasad.

'Bura na maano Holi hai!'

I remember the celebrations of Holi or Fagu Purnima in Nepal when I was a child. It was a time of great exuberance and excitement. All the girls would scream when balloons filled with coloured water were thrown at them but they only were pretending to be upset. I liked the coloured powders better. When people threw the powders into the air, it was as though the earth were a canvas for a huge painting. Although it is supposed to be a Hindu festival, every one in the village celebrated. Religious affiliation was not taken seriously where festivals were concerned. Every one participated.

In Nepal, Holi was celebrated with a large pole called a 'chir' decorated with cloths of different colours. The pole would be set up eight days before the full moon and burned on the eve of Holi, night of the full moon. Ashes from the cheer were believed to have protective power and would be worn as tika on the forehead.

1 comment:

Fleming said...

It is truly fascinating that you are able to pull so many things together and link them to their earliest origins.

One realizes that traditions are not as easily lost over thousands of years as one might think. What is the explanation for that, when most people don't even know who their grandparents' parents were? Obviously passing down recipes and holiday customs is a more enduring way of preserving the past than verbal history.

"In the 'Golden Bough', there are many descriptions of special dishes made from beans, peas and pork with special magical significance at this time of the year."

I'm sure you know that in my U.S. Deep South tradition eating blackeyed peas and hog jowl on New Year's Day brings good luck.