It’s May Day this week which has, it turns out, more associations with cheese than you can shake a Morris dancer’s jingly-jangly stick at. Sharing a lineage with the ancient Celtic and Gaelic festivals of Bealltainn, the date traditionally marked the start of the summer season. Cows and sheep were taken up to graze the fresh pastures and milking started again (milking was a ‘May to Michaelmas’ affair back in the seasonal mists of time). Finally the ‘white meats’ (milk, butter and cheese) were back on the menu following the lean winter months.
Many May Day customs were aimed at protecting the livestock for the coming year. Bonfires were lit and cattle driven between them to ensure their fertility (or for the particularly unlucky cows, their bovine Viagra was being actually driven over the dying embers). In Scotland, they ate lamb, bannocks and caudle (a sort of custard made with oatmeal), as well as mulchag Bealltainn or May Day cheese, a special ewe’s milk cheese made with either the milk of a freshly-shorn ewe or the milk from the first day after weaning. It was matured for a year before being eaten (which in the days before refrigeration must have been an interesting experience). Fairies and witches were a perennial problem for dairy farmers but were a particular pest on May Day and so the cheese was eaten with the bannock before sunset to keep away the little folk ( and the big folk with pointy hats and cats). In Ireland, milk was poured on the threshold or at the base of a designated bush to appease the thieving fairy fellows.
But it wasn’t just the country folk who had all the May Day fun. Milkmaids had the day off and would don their finest threads to dance through the streets. 24-hour party person Samuel Pepys, walking to Westminster on 1 May 1667 saw ‘many milkmaids with their garlands among their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them.’ (Pepys, the old rogue, was no doubt taking advantage of the fact that his missus was off in Greenwich gathering dew ‘which Mrs Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with.’)
For my May Day feast, I decided to take advantage of another May Day stalwart, the hawthorn, which was used for garlands, dewy face-bathing (see above) and hiding all manner of festive frolicking.
Growing up, we would eat the young leaves which were known as ‘bread and cheese’ (I realise that this makes me sound like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel but as I ate it I was probably dancing to Wham! and wearing a ra-ra skirt, if that clarifies things for you). They taste slightly nutty with a bitter aftertaste. Here they are used as a salad-cum-garnish on my May Day frittata, which has spicy squash to evoke bonfires and the last of the winter foodstuffs and goat’s cheese, to welcome a new season of ‘white meats’.
First of all, peel and chop a butternut squash into large cubes. Reserve the seeds. Grind the following mixture to a powder in a pestle and mortar:
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp fennel seeds
½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ dried chipotle pepper
Add 3 crushed cloves of garlic and 1½ tbsp olive oil and use the mixture to coat the squash chunks. Roast it for half an hour at 200 C / 180 fan-assisted/Gas Mark 6 or until soft. At the same time, coat the squash seeds in olive oil and a sprinkling of garlic salt and roast on the shelf below.
Break four whisked eggs into a medium frying pan and when they are starting to set, add slices of the roasted squash and dots of soft goat’s cheese. When the bottom looks cooked, finish the top off under a grill so that the egg is set and the cheese melted. Garnish with the toasted squash seeds and the shoots and small leaves from a hawthorn hedge or bush. Eat at dawn whilst bathing your face in dew and dancing naked with fairies
then post a photo.