2 March 2019

Before Lent, muscadines all round?

Regular readers will have seen this seasonal offering, and its thread, before!

 A kind and doctus friend has sent me this reference. http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/muscone/musconeh./htm 

 Festum Ovorum, the Feast Of Eggs, is how they describe today, 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 on Mardi Gras, 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. (There must be some poignantly corny witticism about Yolks and Yokels.) 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 M.A.. 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 date 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 are sweetmeats made from a pod near the fundament 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 almost into bio-undiversity ... ah, the compulsions of homo insipiens, the so-called animal rationale ... fortasse potius animal dicendum venereale. But I gather that chemists now produce a synthetic version of musk. 

I will here reveal that I have published this post in previous years at the corresponding time of year; and the only interest it has secured has been among North Americans who, in their very welcome billions, regularly offer me Comments in which they patiently explain to this ignorant European that, in all their splendid dictionaries, muscadine refers only to grapes. The old and full Oxford English Dictionary gives entries of three separate words with this same spelling: grapes; animal musk; and, thirdly, "a Parisian woman of fashion". This year, just for variety, I am going to enable none of those grape-preoccupied comments, but I would admit relevant academic comments on Parisian Women of Fashion (whom I had always thought were known technically as les grandes horizontales or obalisques [h/t to Evelyn Waugh The Loved One]).

The English sweetmeats made from musk were called 'kissing cakes' or ... er ...  'rising cakes'. Odd names, don't you think? Now ... no offence ... many of my best friends are chemists ... but I bet muscadines made with synthetic musk would have much less potent characteristics than the Real Thing. As for Fashionable Parisiennes, I have no experience whatsoever of their potential characteristics or physiological effects, synthetic or otherwise. My wife comes from Leicestershire.

A series of controlled experiments, perhaps, in somebody's laboratory?


Ben of the Bayou said...

Could you tell me, dear Father H, when the Assumption began to be celebrated at Oxford and, second, how that timing compares to other locals in Europe?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Presumably, as soon as there was a church near the site of the Ford for Oxen to cross the Thames. The Leofric Missal, probably copied from liturgical books brought from Rome to Canterbury by S Augustine, has it. So does the Sacramentary sent by pope Hadrian to Charlemagne. Oxford, England, Europe are probably in the same boat.

What is jolly about Oxford is that when the Reformation happened and various commemorations (Corpus Christi; All Souls; Assumption) were removed from the Calendar of the Church of England, Oxford never expunged them from the University Calendar. But S Thomas of Canterbury did disappear.

Éamonn said...

The web address at the head of this entry should read http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/muscone/musconeh.htm

Marc said...

I will happily send you muscadine vines, if you'd like to experiment in your garden and if the Customs authorities will permit it; two years before fruiting. I don't believe I've ever eaten the grapes or drunk the wine made from them, however, so cannot recommend them or it. Many thanks for your priestly service and for the wonderful writing here! I do remember you at the daily Office and at Mass.

RoyCam said...

I imagine fashionable Parisiennes would have to be given up, as with the eggs then?

Jhayes said...

"A History of Agriculture and Prices in England" edited by Arthur George Liddon Rogers shows two entries for muscadine wine bought by New College Ocford in 1603. 3 qts in February and 2 pottles at Easter, both at 4 shillings per gallon.

Cambridge also bought muscadine wine at several dates during that year.

oldie said...

St Cross College celebrated the Festum Ovorum a long time ago in the 1970's.

Stephen Barber said...

I think the word you want (or perhaps don't) is odalisques.

Banshee said...

Actually... You might still be able to get musk-flavored sweethearts in Oxford.

You know those jalebi dessert things at Indian restaurants, the orange-colored drizzles made of flour, honey or sugar syrup, and yogurt?

In certain cooking traditions, the honey is infused with rosewater, camphor, and musk. Obviously at that point, it is no longer a cheap dessert.

Musk was a popular medieval ingredient in hippocras mulled wine, particularly at weddings. So this is somewhat grape-related....

Banshee said...

A Taste of Beirut blog has a recipe for "mushabbak" jalabis served at New Year's. They seem to have the rosewater part (although they also have an alternative -- dip a nice fragrant sprig of geranium leaf in your sugar syrup instead!). Also they do different colors.

But the original jalabbiya mushabbaka seems to be more of a fritter or funnel cake or churro, although with all that infused honey.

Banshee said...

Musk-flavored Lifesavers are a thing in Australia. Holy medieval survivals, Batman! Although maybe it is just about being close to Asia?

The Hirshon Arabian Fritters of the Caliph is a post trying to recreate jalabiya mushabbaka, as a Hanukkah dish (because oil-fried). It turned out more like jalabis, and looks delicious.

Banshee said...

Apparently musk Lifesavers are an offshoot of the Australian candy called "musk sticks." There are recipes for making musk sticks at home, and the only hard part would be obtaining culinary grade "musk essence."

The Australians describe the flavor as filling the mouth in a way similar to mint, in that it makes your mouth seem cleaner and brighter. It is also described as being flowery, rather than savory.

I have to say that this is totally different than how I pictured the flavor. Makes more sense with the recipes I found, however.

Banshee said...

Up until the 1920's, you folks in the UK had commercial musk breath lozenges.

So just as in the US, it seems like a lot of customs, ballads, tastes, and expressions survive in a colony, while dying off in the mother country.

Jhayes said...

I believe the word is odalisque


And for a special memory:


Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

Well, it's most intriguing. Or at any rate, I am most intrigu-èd. My SHORTER gives two separate words in a male form "muscadin" (sine 'e'); ignoring the second grape definition, the first says "A Parisian term for a dandy or exquisite... hence in contempt for a member of a moderate party in the French Revolution... composed chiefly of young men of the upper middle class."

No definition of the feminine form of this word is offered.

My question: do you think these young men (under the influence of definition 2 or not) might get together with your OED Fashionable Parisiennes, and if so, should they not desist after Ash Wednesday?

Joshua said...

I have a vague childhood memory of eating musk sticks, but their flavour I've forgotten...

They are, apparently, an acquired taste: