There are a lot of fascinating Christmas Traditions associated with the West Country of England, which is the region I write about in Midnight in Your Arms. As tonight is the Winter Solstice, I thought I would research traditions that are particularly pagan in their origins and share one with you. I thought it might get us all in the mood to make my recipe inspired by my character Tess, who is an old Dartmoor hedgwitch as well as a medium and a scullery maid. She is a very busy lady indeed!
Try to imagine with me a traditional Dartmoor Christmas rite known as Burning the Ash Faggot, which is a bundle of sticks bound together for the purposes of burning things like witches and also to celebrate the Solstice Season when executing heathens was out of vogue. The traditional wood used to construct the Midwinter faggot on Dartmoor was from the ash tree, and preferably all from the same tree rather than a bunch of different trees, because it made the magic that much more powerful. The Christianized reason for the use of ash over another type of tree is that it was supposedly the wood with which Mary lit the fire in order to wash Jesus. The Romany believed that Jesus was born in a field and was kept warm by the heat of an ash fire. The tradition of the ash faggot is said to date back to Saxon times, brought over by the invading Scandinavians who believe that the ash tree is the sacred, World Tree of Norse legend.
In England, the custom was to bind a bundle of ash sticks with nine green lengths of ash bands or ‘beams’. On Christmas Eve, the bundle of wood was put on a fire lit with the remnants of the previous year’s faggot. The householders would gather around the hearth and watch it burn. Any unmarried ladies would each chose one of the green bands, and it was believed that the woman who selected the first band to burst into flames and break would be the next to be married—rather like catching the bridal bouquet! With each breaking of a band, a quart of some festive beverage like cider was passed around and a toast made. It was believed that any household that did not burn the ashen faggot would be in for a year’s worth of bad luck.
I like to imagine the scrawny, secretly-pagan kitchen skivvy Tess fom my novel Midnight In Your Arms sneaking out after all the household was abed on a snowy, atmospheric Dartmoor Christmas Eve, and reveling with fellow villagers round the ash bundle, always knowing with her prescient eye which would be the first band to break, but never shouting it out, lest she should actually have to be married to one of the rawboned young farmhands. I like to think she was holding out for something a little more special than the fate decreed by the physics of combustion. Maybe I’ll have to write Tess’s love story one of these days.
When coming up with the recipe that best represents Tess, I thought I would go with something a little spicy and full of succulent fruit. Something a bit Elizabethan in flavor that might not seem decadent to us, with all of our tropical fruit and imported luxuries, but would have been a lovely, festive treat even for the posh inhabitants of Stonecross Hall for whom spices like cloves, mace, and cinnamon were readily available, and fruit like apples and pears were grown on their own estate, the currants scavenged by clever, chilblained fingers from village hedgerows.
This recipe is nothing fancy, but it tastes like it is! And actually, as I am a North American, I will be using cranberries instead of the currants I imagine Tess would have used. But adaption is the spice of life! Use whatever makes sense to you regionally, as Tess would have done. The decadence is in the liberal spicing. Working in a grand house like Stonecross Hall at Christmas must have been a mouthwatering experience. Just imagine all the pies, cakes, and puddings lined up in the larder, row upon row! My belly is rumbling just thinking about it. Oh, how I long to creep down the back stairs to a Victorian kitchen to raid the pantry on a distant Christmas Eve in 1866…I suppose I will have to make do with my own modern but very charming and kitschy kitchen, as long as some of this delicious dessert is left over! Santa had better leave me some!
Something I learned while researching this post is that fruit crumbles are a fairly recent culinary invention (late Victorian), but they were certainly a staple by the 1920s, so I feel I am vindicated in making this recipe in relation to my time travelling novel, part of which takes place in 1926. The first recipe for Apple Crisp appeared in Everybody’s Cook Book: A Comprehensive Manual of Home Cookery by Isabel Ely Lord—an American cookbook, but I have it on good authority that it is a popular dish across the pond as well! And dishes were often traditional long before they appeared as a recipe in print.
I think Tess would have helped make something very much like this…
Tess’s Secret Spiced Solstice Apple Pear Crumble
5 large ripe red pears
5 medium Granny Smith apples
1 ½ cups cranberries, fresh or frozen (or currants, which is what I imagine Victorian or Edwardian English folk would use)
[Total fruit equals about 13.5 cups. This recipe is a large one, suitable for a dinner party. It can easily be cut in half to suit a smaller gathering or a family of 2-4]
¼ cup flour (I used organic spelt flour, but plain white or brown is what Tess would use!)
½ cup sugar (I used raw, organic sugar—I am sure Tess would use regular granulated or you could use brown for an even richer caramelized flavour)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp mace
1 tsp sea salt
1 cup flour (Again, I used organic spelt)
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup butter (I used Earth Balance Vegan buttery Spread)
1 cup quick oats (introduced by Quaker in the 1920s!)
¾ cup sugar (Again, I used raw organic sugar)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1) Quarter and slice apples and pears into 1/8 of an inch segments, leaving the skin on if you like, to reduce waste and add a festive flair with the pretty green and red rinds. That’s what I did, and it looks really nice!
2) Put the sliced fruit into the baking dish you’re planning to use, and add the cranberries or currants.
3) Combine the flour, sugar, salt and spices and then add the mixture to the fruit in the baking dish and toss it together with a spoon until the fruit is completely coated. Press the fruit down evenly into the pan and set aside to let the juices seep into the dry ingredients and start to thicken while you make the crumble topping.
4) Make sure your oven rack is in the middle slot and set the oven to preheat to 350 degrees.
5) Start the butter melting on medium heat in a small saucepan as you prepare the dry ingredients.
6) Combine the flour, both kinds of oats, sugar, and baking powder in a mixing bowl.
7) When the butter is completely melted, pour it over the dry ingredients and stir vigorously (I like to use a whisk!) until the rolled oat mixture is completely saturated with butter and sticky.
8) Spread the crumble mixture evenly over the pan of fruit and press it down gently.
9) Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. The topping should be beautifully golden and crisp and the caramelized liquid should be starting to rise up, bubbling and sticky, at the edges of the pan.
10) Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream to your guests, and be sure to save some for Santa with a nice cold glass of eggnog on the side!
Merry Yuletide, Dear Readers! I hope your holiday season is a festive and joyful one, filled with loved ones, laughter, and of course, FOOD! Not to mention a really good book or two to read by the fire.
As an extra Yuletide treat, leave a comment on this post with your contact info and I will randomly pick one reader to receive a paperback copy of Midnight In Your Arms as a special Christmas gift from me to you.