This past week we’ve had rain, hailstones, sleet and snow. Yes that’s why on a cold, perishing, rainy miserable morning I love a warm cup of coffee. Now tea is grand too but oh the flavour and richness of the aromatic coffee, ‘tis good for body and soul.
In regards to food I’d be classed as an extremely conservative, unimaginative culinary consumer. I’ve yet to consume sushi, oat milk, caviar, couscous, plant-based burgers or pasta and I wouldn’t be much of a fan of rice or lentils either. When it comes to coffee though I’m an exotic, experimental creature! I am by no means a coffee expert, a barista, but I do love to try different types of coffee everywhere I go. Last November in France I tried an espresso for the first time. I fairness it nearly had the consistency of treacle but I loved it. It always amazes me to see how much the French, whether building workers, plumbers, bus drivers, salesmen — every occupation, love to pop in for their mid-morning espresso and then back to work. It’s like me on a cold, squally February morning coming in from the yard after a morning’s work and enjoying a coffee. No doubt about it the caffeine ‘fix’ does give one a boost!
Today, the day after Ash Wednesday, I’ll be feeling the effect of the withdrawal symptoms as I attempt on a journey that will hopefully entail 40 coffee-less days during this time of Lent. I suppose the concept of fast and abstinence is as old as time itself. Wasn’t it John the Baptist spent forty days in the desert with nothing to eat save wild honey and locusts?. A bit of self deprivation does no harm and sometimes a lot of good. It’s only a weeks since February 2, Candlemas, which is the official ‘end’ of the season of the Epiphany coming 40 days after Christmas Day. Now we are just 40 ‘fasting’ days and six Sundays away from Easter.
Lent has changed a lot even in my time. I can remember when each Friday during Lent was a fast day and of course in olden times the eating of meat and eggs at any time during lent was out of the question. Last Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday — the last day of ‘feasting’ before the austerity of Lent. They say that ‘shrove’ comes from an ancient word ‘shrive’ which meant getting rid of your burden of accumulated sins by doing penance and going to Confession.
In many European countries a Mardi Gras type festival was always held on Shrove Tuesday — the literal meaning of Mardi Gras is ‘Fat Tuesday’ - the day when all excesses were dispensed with in anticipation of the fast fays to come.
In Christianity Easter is really the fulcrum, the bedrock of our faith, more important even than Christmas. There’s a big difference though between Advent and Lent. Advent is hustle and bustle, shopping, spending and the like. Lent, on the other hand, is the opposite. A time to take stock, slow down and do with a little less.
Like Christmas, Easter as we now know it is a combination of an older pagan ritual and the story of the Resurrection. Easter is about rising from the dead, new life and new growth. It’s ancient forerunner in Ireland ‘imbolg’ was a bit similar, all about fertility and renewal. Traditionally eggs were not eaten during lent so perhaps that’s why copious amounts were consumed the day before Ash Wednesday in the form of Pancakes. Strangely it’s on Candlemas Day that French people consume pancakes, they call it La Chandeleur or Jour du Crepe. The ingredients for pancakes in their most basic form are eggs, butter, cream and sugar -all ‘rich’ foods which were not eaten during Lent so having a mountain of Pancakes on the Eve of Lent was just one last bash before the stringent rules of Lent came to the fore. During the days of Lent the frying pan was redundant, washed clean and put away until Easter Sunday morning when many a person was known to eat as many as six eggs in one sitting!
We’ve all used the phrase ‘ breeding like rabbits’ so perhaps the fertility of the rabbit caused it to become the ‘Easter bunny’ we associate with the feast and of course the ‘Easter Egg’ became popularised commercially by choclateiers all over the world. The rabbit and the life-containing egg are two potent and striking symbols of new life and renewal. My granny Twomey used say ‘fasting and prayer are good for the sinner but the working man must have his dinner’ — a truism surely.
There was a time also when no marriages took place during Lent. Shrove Tuesday was the last ‘marrying day’ with one exception. Out on the Skellig islands off the Kerry coast ‘twas claimed they never changed the Gregorian calendar in the Middle Ages. This meant Easter and also Shrove Tuesday was later in the year, by a few days’ than on the mainland. So if a couple badly wanted to marry, well as the saying goes ‘if all fruit fails welcome haws’, similarly a Skellig wedding could get a couple out of a hoult! It’s amazing if one glances through old Marriage Registers to see so many January and February weddings — to get in before the ban as it were.
Up until the 1960’s in many parts of the country dancing was frowned upon during Lent so many an Irish Showband either crossed the Border into the ‘wee North’ or took the plane or boat to England where the dancing ban didn’t exist. Every cloud has a silver lining and the dance-less days leading up to Easter in rural areas saw the hey-day of amateur dramatics. Nearly every village and town had a drama group and taking plays ‘on the road’ was a popular pastime. Television hadn’t yet gained such a grip on the populace and the motto ‘there’s no business like showbusiness’ was the maxim on all lips as amateur thespians strutted their stuff on stages in oft draughty halls and schools. I suppose the thinking behind the dancing ban was that if marriage was banned during lent then thoughts of romance, ‘courting’ and ‘doing a line’ with someone should be shunned in favour of more sedentary pastimes like watching a play.
Ah yes I know I’ll miss the cappuccino, café late, Americano and the Flat White but a little bit of mortification is good for body and soul — the first week is the toughest but after that I’m counting down the days ‘til Easter Sunday.
One legacy of Lent in Ireland is our very low per capita consumption of fish. For a country surrounded by seas and criss crossed with teeming rivers we never seemed to accept fish as a mainstream foodstuff. For centuries ‘fish on a Friday’ was more of a sign of punishment and deprivation than an opportunity to sample a brilliant and healthy alternative to meat. That association of fish with penance still exists to this day unfortunately. Officially Lent will end on Holy Thursday April 9 but I’ll try and avoid the coffee until Easter Sunday. When I think back on the sacrifices and hardships endured by past generations having to drink only tea for six weeks doesn’t seem a huge deal at all.