In the freezer, the blueberry stock from last August is running low, as are the petite brownie bites and ham from the holidays. In the cupboard, the jars of dried lemon verbena and oregano leaves from the garden are nearly empty. The dried pears are gone. But the good news is we have enough Bentley’s tea – both green and black – to last the rest of the year, and more importantly, the snow is melting! Time to venture to the store.
If only it were that easy for our ancient Irish ancestors. Early February was the onset of “hungry spring,” when the food supplies from the previous harvest were all but spent. The cattle were also growing thin and feeble on what remained of their dried, nutrition-poor grass. “In later Irish folk tradition February 1 was the day for opening up all the cupboards to take stock of what supplies remained to last out the cold weather,” and, naturally, the Old Irish ritual of “tasting all the food” to ensure that it had not gone bad went along with the cupboard inventory (Patterson, 1994, p. 132).
“The basic diet for the winter would be oat porridge, supplemented by carefully rationed portions of salt meat. There were no more fruits, berries, or fresh vegetables, so to ward off scurvy and skin disease, bittercress and other watercresses were collected from streams. Brooklime, which grew on the stream’s banks served the same purpose: its leaves, while not especially palatable, could be chewed to provide essential vitamin C” (King, 1994, p.113).
Hunting supplemented the winter diet, but the hunters weren’t always successful. Birds and deer were swift and wild boar exceedingly dangerous. Prey this time of year was also growing thin. It would be another month before new shoots started poking through the cold, damp, earth. “Oysters, winkles and other shellfish were collected in coastal areas. Voles and mice were easy to trap, but provided little meat; nevertheless, in a hard winter, even the smallest food source would not be spurned” (King, 1994, p. 113). Dried lentils, if a good harvest were carefully rationed, might also last the winter.
Those tribes who were unlucky in the hunt, poorly skilled at rationing, or lacked sufficient livestock had their eyes on their neighbors’ stores and herds. Raids were common. It was a bleak time of year to be in childbed, but many women were. In early May, the womenfolk and younger children went with the cattle to the summer pastures and stayed throughout the summer to milk and tend the herds while the men remained behind to tend the fields. Therefore, “with marriages concentrated between Twelfth Night and Shrovetide, and post-nuptial co-residence of new spouses being interrupted after May 1, many first-born babies would have been born between mid-October and February 1. Thus Imbolc marked the end of the period of first childbirth and the beginning of breast-feeding by inexperienced new mothers, which in turn meant that the mothers’ need for good nutrition coincided with ‘hungry spring’. Just at the beginning of this dangerous period, however, the sheep came into milk” (Patterson, 1994, p. 132). The cows, on the other hand, wouldn’t be in full milk until May.
Apparently, ewe’s milk has a greater fat content than cow’s milk, so it was particularly welcomed. “One of the delectables mentioned in the vision of Mac Conglinne is ‘fair white porridge, made with sheep’s milk’” (Patterson, 1994, p. 131).
I don’t know about you, but all this talk of milk has me hankering for hot chocolate. I’m off to the store for some TruMoo. I’ve got a coupon!
Scavenging update: The store was out of TruMoo. I might have to plan a raid on the next town!
King, J. (1994). The Celtic druids’ year: seasonal cycles of the ancient Celts. London: Blandford.
Patterson, N.T. (1994). Cattle-lords and clansmen: the social structure of early Ireland. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.