The seasons beautys

April so far has been a lovely month, and although there is still a chill in the air, it’s lovely to walk round with bare arms and bare legs and in sandals and shorts. In our little village, the bluebell field is more glorious than ever, I can’t remember seeing it so blue, so very blue, with just a dappling of cowslips and late primroses. My featured photo is from last year, by the way!

It’s poetry month, so more from John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar:

The seasons beautys all are thine
That visit with the year
Beautys that poets think divine
And all delight to hear
Thy latter days a pleasure brings
That gladden every heart
Pleasures that come like lovley things
But like to shades depart

Thy opend leaves and ripend buds
The cuckoo makes his choice
And shepherds in thy greening woods
First hears the cheering voice
And to thy ripend blooming bowers
The nightingale belongs
And singing to thy parting hours
Keeps night awake with songs

With thee the swallow dares to come
And primes his sutty wings
And urgd to seek their yearly home
Thy suns the Martin brings
And lovley month be leisure mine
Thy yearly mate to be
Tho may day scenes may brighter shine
Their birth belongs to thee

A tale of spring

We’ve had such a lovely day, it really seems spring is with us! here are some lines from John Clare, the Shepherds Calendar for March:

March month of ‘many weathers’ wildly comes

And where the stunt bank fronts the southern sky
By lanes or brooks where sunbeams love to lye
A cowslip peep will open faintly coy
Soon seen and gathered by a wandering boy
A tale of spring around the distant haze
Seems muttering pleasures wi the lengthening days
Morn wakens mottled oft wi may day stains
And shower drops hang the grassy sprouting plains
And on the naked thorns of brassy hue
Drip glistning like a summer dream of dew
While from the hill side freshing forest drops
As one might walk upon their thickening tops
And buds wi young hopes promise seemly swells
Where woodman that in wild seclusion dwells
Wi chopping toil the coming spring deceives
Of many dancing shadows flowers and leaves
And in his pathway down the mossy wood
Crushes wi hasty feet full many a bud

Revisiting cowslip mead

With so many lovely cowslips around this year, I’ve been looking back at what I’ve written about them in the past:

The first time I ever tried mead was at a medieval banquet which the student’s union organized when I was at Manchester Poly. I remember the banquet being enormous fun where we all ate and drank enormously and then for some reason I drive home for the Christmas holidays with a decorated boar’s head on the seat beside me.

Being a great reader of just about everything during my childhood, I had often read historical novels when mead was drunk so I can imagine  I was very excited to try it for the first time. I don’t think I liked it very much, but that probably didn’t stop me drinking it!I’ve treid drinking it a couple of times since, and I still don’t care for it greatly.

However, I came across a recipe for mead in the little book I have by Ambrose heath, ‘Home Made Wines and Liqueurs and how to make them’. he has what he calls ‘a simple bee-keepers recipe’ in which you should boil for ¾ hour four pounds of honey dissolved in a gallon of water with an ounce of hops, half an ounce of root ginger and the pared rind of two lemons. Then it should be poured into a cask (he has a whole section on casks and how to prepare them) and fill it to the brim, and while it is still warm add an ounce of yeast. Once it has finished fermenting (no mention of how long this might take) add ¼ ounce of isinglass (which he writes as ‘isingless’) and bung the cask tightly. Six months later bottle your mead!

Ambrose heath has an appendix with notes on mead which he says was once ‘far more important and complicated drink’ and he mentions ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby’ – an early cookery book published in 1669, which has twenty-six mead recipes. Heath mentions the Worshipful Company of Mead Makers from Cornwall, but says nothing more about them. In Cornwall when Heath wrote his little book in 1953 there was a mead making business in Gulval near Penzance; there were apparently nine different mead drinks: mead, sack mead, metheglin, sack metheglin, bochet, pyment, hippocras, cyser and melomel. he gives a two page recipe for sack mead… which seems awfully complicated for a home mead maker!

Ambrose also includes a recipe for cowslip mead; cowslips smell divine, but would cowslip mead taste divine? here is his recipe:

  • 1 gallon water
  • 2 pounds honey
  • 1 large sliced lemon
  • 1 gallon of cowslip flowers
  • 2 sprigs of sweet briar (if you can find it, not essential)
  • ¼ ounce yeast plus a little extra honey
  1. make a syrup with the water and honey, boiling uncovered for ¾ hour, skimming it well
  2. pour a pint of syrup over the sliced lemon
  3. pour the rest of the syrup over the cowslips, stir well, cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours
  4. add the lemon syrup and the sweet briar
  5. add the yeast dissolved in a little honey
  6. let this work for four days then strain into a cask
  7. keep in a cool place for six months then bottle

A cowslip ball, again

I wrote about lovely cowslips the other day, and mentioned as I did so that I thought I had written about them before… and yes, I had. Following on from an interesting conversation about a little known nineteenth century writer, I came across Mary Russell Mitford  for the first time. This is what she had to say about cowslips, and a cowslip ball:

I recently came across Mary Russell Mitford, my optician mentioned her to me, and I now have her little book, ‘Our Village’. I was looking through what she wrote for a day in May, when she and some companions went out to gather wild flowers and make ‘a cowslip ball’. Sadly our meadows and woods are so depleted of wild flowers that we can no longer pick them – but on the other hand not picking them leaves them for others to enjoy!

“These meadows consist of a double row of small enclosures of rich grass-land, a mile or two in length, sloping down from high arable grounds on either side, to a little nameless brook that winds between them with a course which, in its infinite variety, clearness, and rapidity, seems to emulate the bold rivers of the north, of whom, far more than of our lazy southern streams, our rivulet presents a miniature likeness.

Never was water more exquisitely tricksy:—now darting over the bright pebbles, sparkling and flashing in the light with a bubbling music, as sweet and wild as the song of the woodlark; now stretching quietly along, giving back the rich tufts of the golden marsh-marigolds which grow on its margin; now sweeping round a fine reach of green grass, rising steeply into a high mound, a mimic promontory, whilst the other side sinks softly away, like some tiny bay, and the water flows between, so clear, so wide, so shallow, that Lizzy, longing for adventure, is sure she could cross unwetted; now dashing through two sand-banks, a torrent deep and narrow, which May clears at a bound; now sleeping, half hidden, beneath the alders, and hawthorns, and wild roses, with which the banks are so profusely and variously fringed, whilst flags,* lilies, and other aquatic plants, almost cover the surface of the stream.

In good truth, it is a beautiful brook, and one that Walton himself might have sitten by and loved, for trout are there; we see them as they dart up the stream, and hear and start at the sudden plunge when they spring to the surface for the summer flies. Izaak Walton would have loved our brook and our quiet meadows; they breathe the very spirit of his own peacefulness, a soothing quietude that sinks into the soul.”

A cowslip ball is exactly that, a ball made from cowslips:

“At last the baskets were filled, and Lizzy declared victor: and down we sat, on the brink of the stream, under a spreading hawthorn, just disclosing its own pearly buds, and surrounded with the rich and enamelled flowers of the wild hyacinth, blue and white, to make our cowslip-ball.

Every one knows the process: to nip off the tuft of flowerets just below the top of the stalk, and hang each cluster nicely balanced across a riband, till you have a long string like a garland; then to press them closely together, and tie them tightly up. We went on very prosperously, CONSIDERING; as people say of a young lady’s drawing, or a Frenchman’s English, or a woman’s tragedy, or of the poor little dwarf who works without fingers, or the ingenious sailor who writes with his toes, or generally of any performance which is accomplished by means seemingly inadequate to its production.

To be sure we met with a few accidents. First, Lizzy spoiled nearly all her cowslips by snapping them off too short; so there was a fresh gathering; in the next place, May overset my full basket, and sent the blossoms floating, like so many fairy favours, down the brook; then, when we were going on pretty steadily, just as we had made a superb wreath, and were thinking of tying it together, Lizzy, who held the riband, caught a glimpse of a gorgeous butterfly, all brown and red and purple, and, skipping off to pursue the new object, let go her hold; so all our treasures were abroad again.

At last, however, by dint of taking a branch of alder as a substitute for Lizzy, and hanging the basket in a pollard-ash, out of sight of May, the cowslip-ball was finished. What a concentration of fragrance and beauty it was! golden and sweet to satiety! rich to sight, and touch, and smell!”

Cuslyppes, cowleacs, cowslips

I’m sure I’ve written about cowslips before, my favourite spring flower… or are primroses my favourite… oh maybe they are my joint favourite, as they are botanical cousins anyway! If you are lucky enough to find proper wild cowslips in a warm and sunny place you might be able to smell their wonderful perfume without getting down on all fours! They do smell delicious and it’s a disappointment that cowslip wine tastes nothing like them.

There is so much written about the meaning of the name – as a child we thought it meant a cow slipping over, then we were told it was ‘cow’s lips’; on investigating some writers think it is to do with cow’s manure or ‘slips’, is it from  Anglo-Saxon cow’s leek,’  a leek from leac, meaning  plant? Or did it arrive later from Middle English, cowslyppe, from Old English cūslyppe ‎ which derives from cū ‎ and slyppe ‎ which means sloppy stuff – a reference to manure because in a well-manured field cowslips would grow? I’m not sure I would recognize an oxlip but it is a sibling of the cowslip.

Cowslips like most wild flowers used to grow in profusion, and meadows would be full of them – imagine the heavenly perfume on a warm spring day?! My mother remembered such fields when she was a girl. because there were so many of them, they could be picked and used – the leaves in salads, the flowers used in recipes and remedies.

The flowers had their own folklore and tradition attached to them and they were an important part of Mayday celebration, being hung in garlands; how lovely on a spring wedding to have the bride’s path strewn with cowslip flowers?

Here is a really interesting article about cowslips:

and another by Germaine Greer, about oxlips, cowslips big brothers:

Cowslip wine

In Alison Uttley’s charming little book, Recipes From An Old Farmhouse, she describes how when she was a child there was an expedition each spring to gather cowslips for wine. I’m not sure if these days cowslips are protected, but I don’t think they are abundant enough any more to be able to pick enough to make wine. They smell heavenly… I wonder if the wine tastes heavenly. She describes it as ‘a delightful experience, a magical time of life, to wander in that delectable place, with its underground spring and its water trough, its hedges of wild honeysuckle and red campion underneath, and its cowslips…’

Her mother would take her and her brother the servant girl down to a particular meadow with clothes baskets. I have no idea how big they would be, I would guess like a hamper. They would take smaller baskets into the meadow and gather the flowers. As an adult looking, back, what an exquisite and perfect memory of childhood!

There were enough flowers for them to be picking them all morning and after lunch, all afternoon. In the evening they would pull the ‘peeps’ which I guess are the bell-like petal from the flower heads, throwing the pale green stalks and calyces on the kitchen floor. This would take the whole evening.

To make th wine first you have to measure the peeps of the flowers; to each peck (16 dry pints – what a quantity! the mother would use an old-fashioned wooden peck measure) to each peck add three gallons of spring water, and to each gallon of water add three pounds of sugar. Boil the water and sugar for an hour and then skim; while it is boiling add a few egg whites (I don’t know why, maybe to clarify the mixture) Strain it cool it, and while it is still warm add a little brewer’s yeast – it gives no idea of how much ‘a little’ is… in that quantity of liquid it could be a couple of ounces… but who knows? I guess the mother had made it from being a child, using her mother’s recipe, and goodness knows how many mothers before had made it!

Pour the peeps into the mixture, and the peel of two lemons for every gallon of liquid. Stir it ‘now and then’ for nine days and then pour it into a wooden barrel but leave the bung-hole open for a fortnight. Fasten the cork into the bung-hole with wire and after two months the wine can be bottled but it also says add a pint of best brandy to every three gallons of the wine. The best time for bottling was towards winter it says in the recipe… which means it must have been in the barrel for longer than two months…

Alison Uttley describes the wine as ‘yellow, resembling sherry, and tasted delicious, said those who drank it from the long pointed glasses which were my grandmother’s’.