This is a story that brings together the Irish Spring Festival and the Bealtaine Bannock with Romanian Celtic heritage, an unlikely thread of history that connects two cultures placed at the opposite ends of the same continent: Europe.
It’s early morning and we are in lockdown, which means that some staple ingredients are still missing from my pantry. Especially flour. But that’s not really an issue, because I am going to be making something with oat flour. I take some porridge oats and blitz them in a food processor to a finer texture, and this is my base for what’s to come: Irish Bealtaine Bannock prepared every 1st May.
It’s the Lá Bealtaine Irish Summer Festival today, an ancient Celtic celebration of the first day of the new season. It’s marked by the flowering of the hawthorn, cow parsley and elderflower. Cattle herders used to start the journey with their herds to summer pastures, while rituals were performed to bless the land, trying to appease the Gods in hope for good crops and healthy farm animals.
Migrating from Central Europe, the Celts established settlements in both the far west and far east of Europe. Reaching as far as the British Isles or eastwards to Romania and Turkey, they also went south to Spain, France and Italy. They looked for fertile and rich land where they could settle alongside local tribes, and practice agriculture and animal husbandry.
The Greeks called them Keltoi, possibly meaning ‘tall’, the Romans called them Gauls, meaning ‘powerful, bold, ferocious’, and Germanic tribes used ‘Valha-‘ describing Celtic speaking tribes or Roman land. This is the name origin of Wales, or of the Valois region in France and Valahia region in southern Romania.
In Romania, the continental climate provided a good environment for the settlers: moderate rain, lush pastures for the herds and vast forests, with rich natural resources especially salt. The salt was an important flavour enhancer and key ingredient in preserving meat, and it appears to have been the main reason for the Celtic migration in the north and west of Romania.
One of the popular colour combinations in traditional Romanian weaving and embroidery is the trio of red, black and white, powerful Celtic (but not restricted to Celts) symbols for blood, death and sacrificial purity. In some parts of the countryside, there are Celtic style crosses, made of wood or carved in stone, reminiscent of the times where the Celts chose the Christian religion during the late Roman empire.
But perhaps it is in our traditions where you find more evidence of this Celtic historic thread. Or in the bagpipe music which can still be heard in today’s Romania. There is an article on Irish Buzz about this here.
The winter celebrations on 30th November in Romania are about divination – linked to marriage or death, about wild animals suddenly speaking with a human voice, and about the awakening of the dead. This may sound familiar to those who celebrate Samhain in October. The Welsh Gaul custom of Mari Lwyd in December, now almost forgotten, is a tradition very much alive in Romania called ‘capra’. A goat skull fixed to a pole, decorated with ribbons and traditional fabric, draping down to conceal the trickery, is danced around the villages and at crossroads.
The first day of summer, on 1st May is Armindeni in Romania, dedicated to prosperity, healthy farm animals, good crops…and good wine.
There are two traditional elements of this holy day: the tree and the absinthe. In the countryside, people bring a tree from the woods, perhaps a birch, to put in their garden and decorate with flowers (most likely lilac) and with wheat or cereal ears. This tree will be later used to light the fire in the clay ovens to bake the first bread of the autumn harvest. In towns or more urban areas, the tree is symbolically replaced by a little branch that people put in the window.
The absinthe is actually used to make a bitter wine, which is quite popular in Romania throughout the year, but especially drunk on this day. Bitter medicinal plants such as the absinthe are believed to have magical powers today, and people are encouraged to gather them and use them to keep healthy during the year.
Ultimately, while the Irish and the Welsh treasured their Celtic heritage, while they became patrons of their own Celtic language and art, Romania buried them deep. This is possibly because of the scale of colonisation by the Roman empire, where the Celts were totally assimilated by the new culture. Under the Christian religion, 1st May turned into St. Ieremia’s Day, celebrating a famous Biblical figure. More so, there was another ‘religion’ that influenced the meaning of today: the Communist regime. It had hijacked the International Workers Day, designated in Chicago in 1886, and turned it into a day of propaganda and Soviet-style gigantic parades.
So today, I choose to celebrate the arrival of summer and to appease the Gods of fortune with an Irish Bealtaine oat bread. We need the Gods to be on our side more than ever. I am adapting a recipe by Regula Yeswyn in her book ‘Oats in the north, wheat from the south’. I take the oat flour I made at the beginning of this story, and add buttermilk or any yoghurt/sour cream that I have in the house, add bicarbonate of soda and mix briefly. I cut a cross in the middle, all the way through the bread. Then I bake it in the oven for 25 minutes, while I’m boiling some eggs and slicing some smoked ham. I also open a jar of pickles. I’m bringing together flavours of both my worlds: Irish Celtic and Romanian Celtic.
Here is the recipe
Irish Bealtaine Bannock
Neal Ascherson – Black Sea
Alan Davidson – The Oxford Companion of Food
Toussaint Samat – A History of Food
Maria Jose Sevilla – Delicioso
Ursula Heinzelmann – Beyond Bratwurst
Lia Leendertz – The Almanac
Ferencz Iosif Vasile – Celtii pe Muresul mijlociu