The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio (Translation: As many as are in the feast)
There’s more but I won’t tax your patience. I was taught this festive 15th. Century ditty when I started primary school as a five-year old. The headmistress clearly had high church ideas and asked us to sing this and other arcane material. I don’t remember any of us having trouble with the language or the concepts but I seem to have been left with a lifelong affection for plain chant and a facility for scientific terminology.
Laurus nobilis (bay)
Laurus nobilis (bay) has been used in European cooking since the ancient Greeks needed some scran during breaks from carving the bones of our science, mathematics, art and politics. The leaves are also used in the Americas, Thai cuisine, Arab, Indian and Pakistani dishes, amongst others. Kept in the pantry, dried leaves are reputed to repel moths, flies, cockroaches and mice but I hope that you never need to sink that low. The plant is even tempered in most soils, provided that it can sunbathe and doesn’t get waterlogged. I grew mine in a terracotta pot and since the sapling had three clear stems, I spent some years plaiting them carefully together. It took one hard winter and my attention elsewhere feeding the crowds at Xmas, for the plant to succumb to a frost.
Ironmongery makes it interesting
Rosmarinus officinalis is another woody perennial herb of Mediterranean origin, the Latin translates as “dew of the sea”. Christian stories tell of the white flowers being turned permanently blue when the Virgin Mary spread her cloak over a nearby bush. The Greeks said that Aphrodite was draped in rosemary when she emerged from the ocean; warmer down there than up here, obviously. In the Middle Ages, brides, grooms and wedding guests would decorate themselves with sprigs of green leaves, which led to its use as a love charm. I like to throw a modest handful on the log fire, to perfume the sitting room. Over enthusiasm provokes oily roiling clouds of medicinal scented smoke which cause visitors to wheeze. Also, if it works as an aphrodisiac, I don’t want to cause trouble. Another shrub that will not cope with soggy feet, it is otherwise quite tough, withstanding drought very well. Given time, it makes a large ornamental that can be used as a hedge or for topiary. Unlike bay, it’s easy to propagate by pushing a 4-6 inch (10-15 cm) cutting into the soil and waiting for roots to form.
Moss & lichen on the Stumpery
I’ve never got around to dragging lumps of mint out of the ground and potting them up to keep on the kitchen window sill, to flavour potatoes even in the darkest of winter gloom. The two herbs mentioned in the Boar’s Head Carol are carefully sited in the courtyard with a view to livening up my cooking from now to Twelfth Night and beyond. I’ve stocked up on every foodstuff that my guests should expect and a few more for surprises. I’ve looked out the best china and polished the cutlery. I’ve laundered my apron, starched the tablecloth and rolled up my sleeves. Let the feasting commence. Bon appétit.