Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Boar's Head in Hand Bear I: Tales of a Modern Boar's Head Feast

How many of you eat turkey for Christmas dinner?
How many have ham?
How many have Boar’s Head?? 
Yes, I said a boar's head! 

Roasted boar, with literally an apple in it's mouth, was a staple of medieval banquets and, with the fanfare of trumpets and the songs of minstrels, the meal was carried to the table inside the banquet hall on a silver (or gold) platter decorated with sprigs of evergreen, bays, rosemary, and holly.
This pageant is rooted in ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest. A ferocious beast and menace to humans, it was hunted as a public enemy. As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs in Europe, the presentation of a boar's head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.
Image from www.timetravel-britain.com

It was carried to those waiting in attendance at the table to the strains of the Boar's Head Carol:

(Verse 1) 
The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio (Translation: As many as are in the feast)

(CHORUS)  Caput apri defero (Translation: The boar's head I offer) Reddens laudes Domino (Translation: Giving praises to the Lord)

(Verse 2) 
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. (Translation: Let us serve with a song)

(CHORUS

(Verse 3) 
Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginesi atrio. (Translation: In the hall of Queen’s [College, Oxford])
(end with the CHORUS)

The traditional Boar's Head Festival had grown to include lords, ladies, knights, historical characters, cooks, hunters, and pages. Eventually, shepherds and wise men were added to tell the story of the Nativity.
The whole was embellished with additional carols as well.
Yes, I realize Christmas is past - 12th Night was the last - but a good friend of mine, Karen, wanted to do something special for the period vocal group I manage known as Simply Dickens. Karen, like me, is a collector of historical Christmas music, and we search far and wide to locate the old world carols one rarely, if ever, hears in today's society.

Simply Dickens prepares to perform "The Boar's Head Carol" written in England in the 1400's. Yes, that's me giving our audience a bit of history of the carol.

And the Boar's Head Carol, which was written, incidentally, in the 15th century, is one of the best of these forgotten favorites. I say forgotten because in our modern world where few even think or care about where their food comes from the idea of a head of a boar served on a silver platter can be a bit disconcerting.
If you follow Simply Dickens' Facebook page (and if you don't, you should - if for no other reason than it would be great to have higher numbers!), then you know that we have been very busy this past Christmas season, performing 12 shows in a three week period. That's pretty good considering we specialize in many of these forgotten favorites I mentioned (without a Rudolph, Frosty, Santa, Donkey, or Hippopotamus in the bunch!).
So anyhow, this past December Karen came up with the idea of throwing a Boar's Head Feast for our group - heck, she came to two of our shows in one season - - she must like us!!
Christmas is a very busy time not only for the Simply Dickens members but for me personally. Just see my December postings if you don't believe me. And it was for this reason we chose a date sometime in mid-January. It also helped to cure some of the winter blahs.
Welcome to January 12, 2014, the only date that everyone agreed upon.
Since we dress mid-19th century when we perform rather than medieval (and since none of us has quality replica 1400's clothing), we decided just to all wear our modern clothing, though the feast was held in my Victorian parlor. To help give off somewhat of a medieval feel, I pulled out my faux silver candle holders, pottery bowls, and any other decor I had on hand that could have a sort of 600 year old effect.
Our Victorian parlor/gathering room was festively decorated in a sort of pseudo-medieval feel.

I even put my great (or walking) wheel front and center to help with the atmosphere.

I thought we did a decent job considering what little we had to work with. Medieval items aren't easy to come by!

I then pulled out my homemade Renaissance/Medieval cassette tapes I had recorded back in the '90's featuring such performers as Gaelic Storm, Revels, As You Like It, Bonnie Rideout, Alan Lomax, the older Bocca Musica, and the Chieftains, as well as more traditional artists such as the York Waits, Celtic Roots, New London Consort, the Broadside Band, "Elizabethan Music," and Hesperus. These tapes also include some of the more contemporary performers that have music that can fit in quite nicely with this theme such as Jethro Tull ('Songs From the Wood' and 'Mother Goose'), Led Zeppelin ('Battle of Evermore'), Mary Hopkin ('Those Were the Days') and the Pogues (South Australia).
With four 100 minute tapes, I barely touched the tip of the iceburg with the variety of musicians and music played, by the way.
Later in the afternoon, my oldest brought out the guitar and performed a few of the more popular Irish-type pub tunes such as "Johnny Jump Up," "Tell Me Ma," and the "Hills of Connemara."
 
Karen bought and brought the boar's head over in the morning and let it cook until nearly 4:00 in the afternoon. Well, it was actually a pig's head - a boar's head is more difficult to get and to cook, so we decided to stick with a pig's head.
But we still called it a boar's head party.
The founder of our feast!!
Besides the main dish, other servings included pork chops, bone marrow, rutabaga and potatoes, corn pudding, plum pudding, soup broth, peasant bread, and wassail to drink.
When the head was ready for serving, it truly was bedecked in a garland of greenery and carried on a silver platter, just as in days of old. And rather than the sounds of trumpets we, instead, had the vocalization of our favorite minstrels, Simply Dickens, singing The Boar's Head Carol as my son carried the tray into our parlor. 
Simply Dickens marched into our gathering room carrying the boar's head bedecked in the greenery from days of old.
The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.

The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico

And we cannot forget that after Simply Dickens sang the Carol live for us, Karen played 24 different versions of the old tune from her own personal collection!  

It may not be a banquette hall, but it worked for our party!

Raise your glass for a toast to the founder of the feast, Miss Karen De Coster!!

Bone marrow: you scoop the marrow out of the bone and spread it on your bread. No, I did not try this, for I am not an adventurous eater, but those that did seemed to enjoy it.

Following dinner, Simply Dickens member Rebecca had a very traditional plum pudding waiting for us by way of a mid-19th century recipe (which was most likely taken from an even earlier recipe!).



It was so beautiful when she set the brandy covering a-flame and then, afterward, put a ‘hard sauce’ on top. 
(If you look close you can see the blue flame. I wish my camera could capture the scene better. Oh well, at least I have this.)


The plum pudding (with a sprig of holly stuck in) helps to give a very merry look

It really was quite the festive meal as a whole!

But the festivities were not over yet, for a rare treat occurred this day - something that doesn't happen very often: I - shock! - actually played my guitar!
And I sang!! (Though I must admit  my singing voice is better suited for torturing souls rather than soothing them...)
But I still had fun singing the very non-medieval songs of my youth: Suite Judy Blue Eyes (CSN) and Old Man (Neil Young), followed by a number of Beatles tunes my son and TC played.
There was also an ode to our Sicilian heritage when my son sang (in Sicilian) the Theme from the Godfather. 

Brucia la luna n'cielu
E ju bruciu d'amuri
Focu ca si consuma
Comu lu me cori

What a very fine ending to an unusual day - a truly splendid time with a mix of new and old, modern and tradition.
Many, many thanks must go to Karen for pretty much for putting the entire gathering together, for it was her idea; she bought most of the food, and continued to expand the idea each time we spoke.
Yep. It was a grand time.
Or, as Simply Dickens member Diana wrote on her Facebook page, "The whole evening was an EXPERIENCE!!

(By the way, much of my information about the history of the boar's head came from Wikipedia.) 

Tho' this is not Simply Dickens, here is a wonderful and traditional version of the Boar's Head Carol:


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