March brings breezes loud and shrill,
stirs the dancing daffodil.
If you look closely at the image above, another from the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Limbourg brothers, early 1400s), you’ll notice not just the plowman with his team of oxen, but also the rows of neat furrows behind him. I know that the plow is turning the green part of the field “under”, but I’d never really understood the process until I saw these images:
These, from Dorothy Hartley’s Lost Country Life*, clarified for me how the plow works. According to Hartley, until the 1700s, plows couldn’t reverse the cut from right-hand to left-hand, so you have to picture the plowman’s path as an oblong circle, running widdershins. He creates first the right-hand side of that wide furrow (called a “rean furrow”), and then comes back along the same line to create the left-hand side. I’m disappointed that no rean furrows appear in the Trés Riches Heures image, but I suppose I can’t expect scientific exactness from a mere artist.
Hartley also points out how much care the oxen require: they must be allowed rest at the end of each furrow, while the plowman shifts the yoke to ease the area on the animals’ necks where it chafes. And then a good rub-down at the end of the day’s work, with special attention to that same area. Oxen are slow but steady, walking about 3 miles an hour. Harley says they were used not just to get farm goods to market, but also to haul “heavy building stone and timber for castle and cathedral”.
Peter Mayle’s Year in Provence progresses through March, with his kitchen rehab project still unfinished, but he does manage to get the massive stone table top moved into the back garden. An ominous phone call ends the chapter: “‘How’s the weather?’ asked an unidentified voice.” A friend of a friend is coming down and expects, without even asking, that Mayle and his wife will be happy to host this complete stranger.
Before Mayle can pull himself together to say “Not on your tintype!” (or its British equivalent), the caller ends:
“Must go. Can’t chat all night. Plenty of time for that when I get down next week.” And then those awful words that put an end to any hopes of hiding: “Don’t worry. I’ve got your address. I’ll find you.” The line went dead.
Gladys Tabor, at her country house in Connecticut, describes a different kind of problem. “Travelers passing by stop and fill the trunks of their cars with stones” (from dry-stone walls marking boundaries). Neighbors “discovered one week end that their best evergreens had been dug up and taken off. Several, too big to dig up, were simply topped and the tops carried along. Another friend came home to find someone had dug up most of her best lilies.”
Is it wrong of me to take comfort in learning that there have always been horrid, selfish people?
I end with another year-themed cookbook I found recently, Country Cooking, or To Cut a Cabbage-Leaf. The author, Miss Read (aka Dora Saint, 1913-2012), wrote dozens of novels set in small English towns in the 1940s to 1980s. (I reviewed these books here.) When I found her cookbook, I thought, “Oh, goody! Let’s see what they were eating 50 years ago in small-town England.” Organized by seasons, the recipes fall into predictable categories: fish, sauces, soups, hors d’oeuvres, eggs, main dishes, sweets, and cakes. I noted a couple to try at some point.
Miss Read admits her own interest in reading old cookbooks, with their gems of folk knowledge. As she explains, “there are many snippets of country wisdom which present-day cooks would do well to heed. Celery and Brussel sprouts, for instance, are better after frost. Blackberries are always nicer in September than October, for in the latter month, as every country child knows, the Devil trails his coat over the fruit and spoils it!” She includes her own bits of lore throughout, even quoting from some old cookbooks. She also provides an extensive list of when game birds/animals are in season.
Some of the recipes look tempting (particularly the various hot-pots and fish/meat pies), but I take Miss Read’s recipe for Macaroni Cheese as a warning:
Remember that macaroni, vermicelli, spaghetti and other pastas must be cleaned first by dropping them into fast-boiling water for about 3 minutes. Never cold water. After draining, transfer them to the vessel in which they will be cooked.
It continues: “Break the macaroni into short lengths and cook in plenty of salted water for about 20 minutes….”
I had to stop there. Either there was something very different about the pasta available in England in the 1960s, or there’s some truth behind the reputation the English have for overcooking everything. (Apologies to my British friends — I’ve had excellent meals in English restaurants, pubs, and homes — but what can you say about a “Lettuce Soup” recipe, where you sauté the lettuce first?)
Even Miss Read is aware of this reputation. She precedes a recipe for “Proper Fish Pie” with a reassurance:
The term ‘fish pie’ usually invokes a feeling of gloom. It takes us back to grisly school dinners or some appalling concoction created in war-time from one of the few misshapen and unknown objects on display at the fishmonger’s…. Cross my heart, this recipe isn’t a bit like that.”
The recipe that follows actually looks promising.
And I do want to commend Miss Read for writing the most English sentence I’ve ever seen: “The traditional time to have one’s first dish of gooseberries is Whitsuntide.”
*Since Hartley makes no mention of an illustrator, I must assume she drew these herself.