27 May 2012

Pentecost; Whitsunday; Baked Custard


The quarter in which the wind is found on the eve of Pentecost, there it will remain for six weeks.

A dry Whitsun and fine brings a good corn harvest
                                  - and -
 Whitsunday bright and clear, will bring a fertile year

                   - on the other hand -

If Whitsunday brings rain, expect many a plague
                                  - and -
 Rain on Pentecost forebodes evil.

Still, there is hope, for a Whitsun rain is a blessing for wine [which will come in handy when dealing with plagues and evil]

A wet Pentecost, a prosperous Christmas.
A bright Pentecost, Christmas in drought.

Strawberries at Whitsun time, indicate good wine. [Hoorah!]

If it rains on Whit-Monday, it will rain for seven Sundays.


Today is Pentecost, Dies Pentecostes, the annual commemoration of the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room, and 3,000 were baptized, as recorded in the 2nd chapter of The Acts of the Apostles.

Wear red today.

Sundays, Easter, and Pentecost are said to have been the only feasts celebrated by the early church.  Formerly it had a Lent of forty days following, with the usual fasting and abstinence; this became an octave, and now is reduced to a few days at most, and no fasting or abstinence in sight.

Whitsunday, by which Pentecost was known in England, may have taken its name from the practice of those newly baptized at Easter and during Paschaltide wearing their white garments or albs.  The octave following both Easter and Pentecost was known as albae (white) or Hebdomada in Albis in early medieval times.  Other sources suggest that the proper word is Witsonday, commemorating the Holy Spirit's enlightenment of man's 'wit' or understanding.  Still another argues that it has come down through different Germanic dialects as a corruption of the old Saxon Whingsten and Whinstun, which in modern German is Pfingsten (Pentecost).

Another name for Whitsunday is Pascha Rosarum – Rose Easter – either because the Queen of Flowers is blooming about now or because red rose petals would be scattered from the church roof or upper sections on the congregants below, in emulation of the tongues of flame which fell on Mary and the Apostles and those gathered with them.  In some churches, white doves or pigeons were let fly through the church, representing the Holy Spirit (usually pictured as a white dove).

Naogeorgus naturally sneered at the local customs:
“On Whitsunday, white Pigeons tame, in strings from heaven fly,
And one that framed is of wood, still hangeth in the sky.
You see how they with Idols play, and teach the people to,
None otherwise than little girls with puppets used to do.”

Two hundred years later, Henry Kirke White (1785-1806) found Whitsuntide (Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday) to be an enjoyable event of music and dancing and ghost stories:

     Hark, how merrily, from distant tower,
     Ring round the village bells; now on the gale
     They rise with gradual swell, distinct and loud;
     Anon they die upon the pensive ear,
     Melting in faintest music. They bespeak
     A day of jubilee, and oft they bear,
     Commixt along the unfrequented shore,
     The sound of village dance and tabor loud,
     Startling the musing ear of solitude.

     Such is the jocund wake of Whitsuntide,
     When happy superstition, gabbling eld,
     Holds her unhurtful gambols. All the day
     The rustic revellers ply the mazy dance
     On the smooth-shaven green, and then at eve
     Commence the harmless rites and auguries;
     And many a tale of ancient days goes round.

     They tell of wizard seer, whose potent spells
     Could hold in dreadful thrall the labouring moon,
     Or draw the fix’d stars from their eminence,
     And still the midnight tempest; then, anon,
     Tell of uncharnelled spectres, seen to glide
     Along the lone wood's unfrequented path,
     Startling the nighted traveller; while the sound
     Of undistinguished murmurs, heard to come
     From the dark centre of the deepening glen,
     Struck on his frozen ear…

This weekend is the Festspiel of Rothenburg, an annual festival celebrated in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, in honor of the liberation of the town after its capture by General Tilly during the Thirty Years' War, of which the main feature is Der Meistertrunk or "The Master Draught".  Rothenburg re-creates these stirring times with hundreds of citizens dressed in 17th century costume, processions, encampments, and performances of the play “Der Meistertrunk”.

The basis for this festival is described in Curiosities of Popular Customs:  “At that time, and indeed until 1803, Rothenburg was a free city. It took an active part in the Peasants' War of 1525, and in the Thirty Years' War of the following century. It was in the course of the latter, in 1631, that the celebrated Tilly appeared before Rothenburg and demanded its capitulation. This the citizens refused, with the result that the gallant little town was besieged and taken. Tilly and his generals proceeded to the Rathhaus, and demanded the municipal keys of the burgomaster. At the same time Tilly imposed a fine of thirty thousand thalers, and garrisoned the town with his soldiers.

“The burgomaster pleaded in vain for some mitigation of the penalty, until the victorious general, after remaining for some time unmoved by his entreaties, conceived the extraordinary idea of offering to restore the freedom of the town on condition that one of the inhabitants should come forward and empty at one draught an immense beaker of wine, containing about three and a half litres (over three quarts). This was an unheard-of feat even in those hard-drinking days, and for some time his offer remained unaccepted. The opportunity of freeing the town from a foreign yoke seemed, however, too important to be lost, and accordingly a patriotic citizen named Nusch resolved to attempt the difficult task imposed by the conqueror. As a matter of fact, he drained the beaker at one draught, and, although tradition relates that a severe illness followed the feat, still he saved the town, for Tilly kept his word, and restored the independence of Rothenburg.”                                            William Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs (1898), p. 425.

[Can you imagine how long it took him to dry out?  I'm guessing that wine was not his tipple of choice for many moons.]

Well, if you cannot make it to Rothenberg, raise a glass of wine where you are to the memory of brave Herr Nusch.


Last year I posted a recipe for Whitpot; other traditional foods for today and the octave following are cheesecake, gooseberry pie, and BAKED CUSTARD.

For a simple baked custard, preheat your oven to 325° F.
You will need a deep baking dish which will hold the custard cups and allow hot water to come halfway up them.
Heat water for the baking dish [I use my teakettle]
Butter 6 custard cups.
Separate 2 eggs.  Reserve the yolks and use the whites for something else (like meringue cookies).  This recipe calls for 4 eggs total.

In a large saucepan, heat 2 cups of milk over low heat to just scalding (i.e., when tiny bubbles appear around the edge of the pan).

Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix together until just blended the 2 egg yolks, 2 eggs, 3 tablespoons of sugar or honey, ½ teaspoon of vanilla, and a pinch of salt.

When the milk is near scalding, carefully pour part of it into the bowl and mix until well blended, then pour the contents of the bowl back into the remaining hot milk in the saucepan and mix again.

Place the custard cups in the baking pan and carefully pour the custard into them.  Sprinkle with a little ground mace or nutmeg. 

Put the pan in the oven and carefully (no splashing!) pour hot water into the baking dish so that the water comes halfway up the cups.

Bake for about 30 minutes and check.  If the custards are wiggly, bake for another 5 minutes.  If they look set, check by inserting a knife in the center of one.  If it comes out clean, they are done [if not, give them another 5 minutes and try the knife test again].

When done, remove the pan from the oven and carefully remove the cups from the water.  Cool to room temperature or chill, whichever you like.

Artwork: Pentecost. Unknown Miniaturist, French (active 12th century in Limoges). Illumination on parchment. Bibliothรจque nationale de France. (swiped from Wikipedia)