9 February 2016

Before Lent, muscadines all round?

Festum Ovorum, the Feast Of Eggs, is how they describe last Saturday, the Saturday before Lent, year by year in the Oxford University Diary, despite the fact that for some centuries nobody in Oxford has even thought of celebrating this entertainingly named day.

The origin and purpose of Festum Ovorum is pretty certainly exactly what each one of you will have guessed from first principles: as today on Shrove Tuesday, to have a binge before Lent. It has stayed on the University Calendar since the Middle Ages ... just as, in this University, All Soul's Day and Corpus Christi and the Assumption survived the 'Reformation' (I bet they didn't in the Fens.) We know that this was not just a custom in alma academia, but flourished throughout the neighbouring country areas, where, in their endearingly unlatinate way, the rude but worthy yokels just called it Egge Satterday. However, purely by coincidence, it became, in this University, linked with an academic deadline: the last day on which bachelors were allowed to 'determine'; that is, to complete the exercises for the degree of MA. And academics had a 'Determination Feast' to celebrate this, which goes back at least to the time of Lord Richard Holland (nephew of Richard II) who had his Determination Feast on the 21st and 22nd of February, 1395 (yes, I have checked that in Cheney). As late as 1603, "all the bachelors that were presented to determine did after their presentation go to every college where they were determining and there make a feast for the senior bachelors, videlicet, of muscadine and eggs; figs; raisons; almonds; sack; and such like".

I suppose all this was quite an exotic spread in those days. Now we could buy most of it in Waitrose. Except for the muscadines, which (look it up in the OED if you don't believe me) are sweetmeats (North Americans might say 'candies') made from a pod near the fundament (check that as well, if you like, in the OED) of an asiatic deer (its secretion may have been a sexual attractant) and regarded as an aphrodisiac since the days when the trade routes brought both it, and its Sanskrit name, from India to Byzantium. It is now vastly expensive since the poor things have been hunted nearly into what our Holy Father would call bio-undiversity - ah, the compulsions of homo insipiens, the so-called animal rationale. But I gather that chemists produce a synthetic version. 

The English sweetmeats made from musk were rather curiously called 'kissing cakes' or 'rising cakes'. Now ... no offence ... many of my best friends are chemists ... but I bet muscadines made with synthetic musk would have less potent characteristics than the Real Thing. A controlled experiment, perhaps?


KaeseEs said...

I don't have a copy of OED handy, but every other reference I have says that muscadines are a New World grape cultivar indigenous to Mexico. I suspect something has gone over my head.

Unknown said...

Yes here in good old Louisiana Muscadines are a wild grape that are abundant in the marshes and swamps in these here parts. They are highly prized. They grow easily, so much so, that in the orchards they are cultivated commercially. They ripen in late August, their flavour can best be described as "musky". Happy Mardi gras to you all from New Orleans Louisiana
Daniel Bailleau

Jhayes said...

When I read that, I too thought of vitus rotundifolia, the muscadine grape mentioned in the earlier comments. One preparation involving eggs is a kind of clafoutis in which the muscadines replace the traditional cherries