Foods containing the name Mary within, rosemary, marigold, are linked to Marian legends. Mary Gardens, popular in the middle ages, were walled gardens, such as where the Virgin Mary received a visit from the angel gabriel, The Annunciation, containing herbs and flowers. The three flowers most connected with the virgin are roses, lilies and iris. It was Jesus' mother who asked him to transform the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, so she obviously liked a drop.
The other biblical Mary, Magadalene, was associated with healing 'balm' or ointment and often pictured holding a white jar. Mary Magdalene's last days were spent in the south of France, not far from Aix en Provence. I went to visit her cave, an atmospheric place, filled with monks' chants, up stone steps carved out of a mountainside near St. Maximim la Sainte Baume a couple of years ago. Lawrence Gardner, in his book The Magdalene Conspiracy, maintains that Mary is not a name, but a title, like 'sister', which is why so many women in the bible are called Mary.
In Catholic Europe, the 15th of August, when Mary was 'assumed' into heaven, is a feast day. There will be fishes and loaves, fruit, (notably pears and pomegranates, both redolent of womb imagery and figs which clearly represent ladies' front bottoms and is actually Italian slang 'fica' for cunt) herbs, almonds and flowers. The colour blue, of Mary's cloak, representing heaven is also important in the symbology, whereas Mary Magdalene is generally pictured wearing a green cloak, the colour associated with the earth. The Henry VIII song 'Greensleeves' was reputedly about a prostitute, many of whom wore green in medieval times (to hide the grass stains?).
I've been playing around with ideas for this forthcoming Sunday's menu:
Stuffed day lillies (if still out in my garden)
Red mullet in a salt crust
Cheeses made by monks or from areas associated with religion, like the Cathar cross.
Marigold custards or figs with mascarpone
Update on menu:
Looks like day lillies are finished.
Fennel, roasted apricot and pomegranate salad
Red Snapper stuffed with chervil and lemon in a salt crust
Roasted new potatoes
A selection of religious cheeses from Mons:
1. Fromage Cathare
2. Lingot de St Nicolas
3. St Nectaire
4. Abbaye de Tamie
Roasted figs with almonds, mascarpone and chocolate with communion wafers
Douwe Egberts coffee and French sweets such as Calissons (almond sweets from Provence) and ass milk pastilles.
Here are some fascinating and hilarious notes on the cheeses by Jon Thrupp of Mons:
Fromage Cathare – is made by the Frickers near Toulouse. Being an Alsace family they have confused, as do many, the Cathare cross for the Toulouse family Cross. Not quite the Medicis but near enough. The Cathares were the second heresy, They were accused of all sorts including sexual deviancy within families but really with a little distance, the world has come to read these deeply religious motives as nothing more than' we want your land, your culture and architecture as part of our kingdom, to charge you taxes and invite our guests to witness our new found splendour'.
Lingot de St Nicolas – is made by 6 Orthodox priests who live in the middle of nowehere. Not even the villagers two miles away know where they are. When it comes to six digit children of the hedges and thickets, these Herault locals are fighting for top spot. The monasteries run by Pere Gabriel are a living example of how the ‘handouts cut back’ in the 13 hundreds by the Vatican really meant that these Priests have had to go it alone and do all manner of things to survive. They have rustic provencal goats and infuse their goats cheese with thyme and lavender essence via a method that they will never share. This is their ‘savoir faire’. Not the first time a clergyman has been happy to keep me in the dark.
St Nectaire – made near St Nectaire and around is a cow’s milk cheese of enormous importance to the Auvergnat people, the most religious and pious of all France’s regions. Almost so that you could correlate wealth with the secular and the poor with the God fearers. Like with many poor areas of Europe, if you ask these cheesemakers why they do it they say: ‘cause it’s what I know to do’. Equally they are naïve about money so be warned to their nonsense. Our cheese makers are lovely, but men in black suits and black ties came and told them how to make their cheese and they took their advice verbatim. This is a sign that the meek are impressed by men in dark suits and dark ties and that they are not as murderous to outside culture as I first thought. It’s a shame as their cheeses tend to taste less and less distinct. Reason being that they have followed a recipe which uses the same bacteria cultures and rennets as the next farm, reducing the specificity that comes of natural and local starters over those that come frozen in sachets from the men with dark ties and suits.
Tamie – Cheese made by a peer in the cheese making agricultural school of our Reblochon maturer. Frere Nathanael is an avant garde monk who has forged his name into history by being the first in the Savoie to industrialise in an artisanal space the cheese making process of a semi soft cheese. His interest is in consistency and he is of the opinion that human moods account for most of farmhouse cheese irregularityand so he has removed humans where possible to minimise time taken in the make and batch variation. He’s a a lovely man and embodies monk's talent for one-up-manship by being the only place to stay over for miles around their pass in the mountains and holding the power to feed travellers with his cheese at maximum retail mark-up. He also is one of the five places to date in France who uses a certain kind of bacteria to breakdown his whey into methane which he than uses to fuel 70 % of the energy used to look after the monasteries Cheese making output. He’s nothing other than a genius with big balls.