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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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Column: Feast, love, enjoy – and welcome the Irish spring!

Today, the 1st of February, is the first day of (Irish) springtime. Celebrate with some traditional festive foods of the season.

Fiann Ó Nualláin

RISE UP, IT’S the Irish spring!

No, nothing to do with revolution, no version of the Arab Spring here, no changing of the old guard – just the changing of the seasons. Today, 1st of February, is the first day of Irish springtime. It has been so, back to the days before St Brigid was canonised. It is one of our most ancient customs and something that makes us distinct from the rest of Europe and our nearest neighbour.

Britain celebrates spring on 1st of March, along with many regions of mainland Europe – that fact speaks to their conquest by the Romans who saw the thaws of March as an opportunity to end the winter hiatus on war and resume military actions and domination. The sap rising in the trees was male vigour. March is named for their god of war, Mars, and once it arrived off they went on their own march of patriarchal expansion.

It is said that the Romans never made it to Ireland because they feared the weather as much as they did the Irish warrior. Their name for Ireland was Hibernia which may actually mean ‘land of constant winter’ – and indeed some first of springs we are knee-deep in slush or snow. So why is this middle of winter point ‘spring’ to us? Has climate changed since the Bronze Age? Or are we just the hardy bucks of the European community? In truth, it’s actually about our feminine side.

Imbolc, the festival of light and spring rites

Spring to the ancient Irish psyche was all about lambing, ewes’ milk, nurturing and what we now call ‘mother nature’. The first of February was commencement of Imbolc – a festival of light and spring rites. Imbolc derives from i mbolg (literally “in the belly”) denoting lambing and the lactation of sheep. Our spring is about fecundity, nurture, birth and joyous life – who needs to wait for the thaw to get on with living? Life never stops, even in the depths of winter or, at least, not in this part of the cold season weeks before temperature makes ‘official’ spring come about.

This very day, as far back as back almost goes, our ancestors imagined and manifested a positive return to longer days and warmer weather and embraced the continuum of life right. I love that about us; the out of step, two fingers up to the brutal reality that February can be both the coldest and wettest month – we will make our own reality – IT’S SPRING!

In the last century when the Surrealist art movement redrew a map of the world, it assigned each country a size ratio not based on actual landmass but upon that country’s inherent surrealist nature – their outlandish customs, unusual mythology and stubborn lack of conformity. Ireland dwarfs many of its geographical neighbours, and I am sure our sense of spring contributed greatly to that.

Plant life switching back on

Real spring, when plants are capable of regrowth, is based on the vernal event and liked to the vernal equinox of 21st of March, the point at which Earth’s axis is brought back closer to the sun and the ambient and soil temperatures rise from the chill and back up above 6C. Plants are thermal things – the temperature they experience dictates germination, growth, flowering patterns, leaf color changes in autumn, and winter dormancy. Six degrees or above switches plant life back on, foliage develops, some even flower, bees emerge, birds build nests, grass grows steadily and sheep have abundant fresh fodder to supply nutrients to their lactation and their lambs.

The fact that we in Ireland get a (willed or imagined) head start on all this is all about our optimism (I would say ‘faith’ but that is almost a taboo word). Even our lambs have the optimism or wisdom to get a head start on birthing in the belief/awareness/expectation that grass will soon grow. So don’t be daunted by the commute, by the euro, by the health service. Rise up with positivity, it’s the first day of spring, good things are on the way!

There is no app for that – real life is just great – and there to be lived and celebrated. So, which ever spring you celebrate, enjoy it. Enjoy all three (that’s the right sort of greedy) and if you are of a mind to indulge your greed or celebrate ‘in the belly’ then the festive foods of Irish spring include colcannon, cider cake, apple or fruit cake, curd cake, barn brack, honey and bread. But, truly, Imbolc is a time for fresh-churned butter and buttermilk. Buttermilk is essential for traditional Irish soda bread, vital for buttermilk scones and exquisite in buttermilk pancakes. Feast, love, enjoy, live – and yeah, feck it – ‘up the revolution’ after all.

* * *

Recipe: Nettle, celeriac and ewes’ milk tart

Imbolc is all about ewes’ milk, and nettles are a great complement – rich in iron and other blood-strengthening and energy enriching compounds, alongside natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatories that boost the system just as it readies itself for the intensity of spring (note: pick with gloves!). Celeriac is seasonal right now and if not growing in your garden then it’s certainly in your supermarket. It contains folate, vitamin K, vitamin B6, manganese and magnesium and also a good amount of vitamin C – thus stopping any toxins present in the body from extracting oxygen out of healthy cells, and in its way contributing to the whole rejuvenation, regeneration and maintenance of full health potential that this dish is intended to celebrate and enhance.

(Serves two)

Ingredients

For the tart base:
Keep it simple – shop bought/ready to roll, shortcrust pastry if is fine. Let it thaw.

For the filling:

  • 1 litre of water
  • 1 large celeriac (approx. 1 kg)
  • 1kg of nettles (approx. two blistered handfuls – I said wear gloves!)
  • 2 chopped onions (variety of your choosing)
  • 1/4 cup/60 ml ewes’ milk (or substitute)
  • 1/4 cup/60 ml cream
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 100g sheep cheese (or substitute)
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  • Drizzle of balsamic vinegar (optional)
  • Salt and black pepper to season

Note: there are many choices if you can’t get ewes’ milk or sheep’s cheese on the day, fret not, goat can be as symbolic and nutritious, as can cow.

Method

To make celeriac puree – peel and dice celeriac (roughly is OK but for even cooking fairly uniform cubes are best), boil water add celeriac cubes and milk, simmer until tender. Drain but reserve 1 cup/250ml of the cooking liquid. Add the cooked celeriac to a blender with cream and butter and ½ cup of the cooking liquid, pulse up a few times. Depending on the actual size of the celeriac you may need to add more cooking liquid to help it blend into a smooth puree. Blend until smooth. Season to taste.

To prepare nettle: if not readily available in your backyard, harvest nettles only from places free of pollution and chemicals (avoid heavy traffic, roadsides and paths where male dogs are walked). Wash the nettles thoroughly. Blanch by sinking them in some boiling water for three minutes and then strain. In a pan, sweat the onions in some olive oil and add a little balsamic vinegar to provide depth to the onion and, before they brown, add the drained nettle and cook on for a few minutes more.

Next, fold celeriac puree with cooked nettle and onion, and grate in sheep’s cheese (or substitute goat) as you proceed. Spoon into the pastry case. Brush with milk. Place in oven 200º C/ 370º F/ Gas Mark 6 for approx 20-30mins until heated through and piping hot. Serve hot or let cool and set for later. Holds great shape when cooled.

Serving suggestion. Perfection with a side salad of garden greens and chilled cider or perry.

Enjoy!

Fiann Ó Nualláin is an advocate of gardening for health with a background in horticulture, nutrition, naturopathy and ethnobotany. His new book, The Holistic Gardener, published by Mercier Press, is available to buy now. 

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Fiann Ó Nualláin

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