May Day, also known as Beltane in the Pagan calendar, is traditionally a day steeped in herbal lore. May 1st marks the end of the colder months and heralds the start of summer. It is a fire festival day where fires were burned on hill tops to encourage the sun’s warmth down to the earth. Beltane is half way through the Pagan year, it is strongly linked to fertility and many enduring customs pertain to this.
Not far from my childhood Bristol home, there still stands rather a phallic Maypole, on Iron Acton Common. Villagers will no doubt be dancing around it this Sunday and spectators may not realise that as those pretty ribbons are intertwined around the pole, a symbolic birth canal is being made around the phallus. That part of the custom certainly passed me by as I enjoyed being an infant school May Queen. In Minehead, Somerset and several Cornish towns, Hobby Horses (or Obby Osses) will be raising dawn sleepers, with raucous dancing and music over the few days following May Day. The reason for this also evaded me whilst I lived in Minehead and tried to enjoy a good lie-in. I am pleased these traditions live on.
So back to the Beltane herbal customs and tasty treats…
- May Dew: At sunrise on Beltane it is customary to rush out into the garden or fields and wipe your face in May Dew, particularly dew gathered on a Hawthorn tree. This is thought to have magical properties, including the ability to beautify the complexion for the coming year.
- Hawthorn: This beautiful and helpful herb tree is known by some as the May Tree. Hawthorn boughs were often harvested at Beltane and the flowers used as gifts and to beautify homes.
- Herb Gathering: Herbs start to flower a-plenty at this time of year hence Beltane is traditionally a time to go out with family and friends, a simple picnic, a basket and gather some wild herb flowers. If you like the idea of this, please remember that annuals rely solely on those precious flowers to create seed for next year’s plants. Leave plenty, harvest just a few (perennials) and avoid rare and protected plants. Try to use the herbs you harvest in some way or give them away to someone in need.
- Flower Garlands: It is also customary to make beautiful flower garlands on May Day. Why not choose plentiful daisies and dandelions? Both are useful herbs, you may like to use when you get home or toss your flower garlands away with a wish, into flowing water.
- May Bowl: This is a delicious drink made from Woodruff (Galium odoratum – it looks very like cleavers (Galium aparine) but it is in flower at the moment, looking like swathes of sugary white froth across woodland floors – when you can find it!). Here’s the simplest recipe I know (many variations are available if you have a taste for it):
8 cups of white wine
2 cups of fresh, clean Woodruff – chopped, preferably in bud or flower
1 tablespoon of grated orange zest
sugar to taste. Pour the wine over the Woodruff and chill in a sealed glass container overnight. Strain off the Woodruff and add other ingredients. Drink in clear glasses, May Bowl is a beautiful pale green color and tastes fragrantly of Woodruff.
- Oat Cakes (Bannocks): An old Scottish custom is to make a Beltane Oat Cake and to share it between friends who would stand around the Beltane fire and each break off a small peice of the nobbly cake. They would then cast it over their shoulder whilst saying a line, asking that something precious be protected by something usually linked with it’s destruction (such as chickens or sheep to be protected by the wolves or foxes).
Here’s a simple recipe (and photo) for Beltane Oat Cake taken from RampantScotland.com. They look very tasty! Traditionally this food would be cooked in the embers of a Beltane fire, a heavy based frying pan or oven will work well instead.
“Beltane Bannocks from Rampant Scotland.com
4 oz (125g) medium oatmeal
2 teaspoons melted fat (bacon fat, if available, butter or ghee will work well)
2 pinches of bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
3/4 tablespoons hot water
Additional oatmeal for kneading
Mix the oatmeal, salt and bicarbonate and pour in the melted fat into the centre of the mixture. Stir well, using a porridge stick if you have one and add enough water to make into a stiff paste. Cover a surface in oatmeal and turn the mixture onto this. Work quickly as the paste is difficult to work if it cools. Divide into two and roll one half into a ball and knead with hands covered in oatmeal to stop it sticking. Roll out to around quarter inch thick. Put a plate which is slightly smaller than the size of your pan over the flattened mixture and cut round to leave a circular oatcake. Cut into quarters (also called farls) and place in a heated pan which has been lightly greased. Cook for about 3 minutes until the edges curl slightly, turn, and cook the other side. Get ready with another oatcake while the first is being cooked.
An alternative method of cooking is to bake them in an oven at Gas5/375F/190C for about 30 minutes or until brown at the edges. The quantities above will be enough for two bannocks about the size of a dessert plate. If you want more, do them in batches rather than making larger quantities of mixture. Store in a tin and reheat in a moderate oven when required.”
Additional note – 1st May 2011 – I made this recipe this morning and added too much butter so I couldn’t form a dough, it became more a crumble. Determined not to waste the mixture, I cooked it gently in a small heavy frying pan and then combined the rich oatmeal with some framage frais, feta cheese and finely chopped tomato. It became a pate type consistency and was really very tasty. It was also possible to shape into balls.