Hello corn dolly
PUBLISHED: 12:57 18 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:18 20 February 2013
Have you ever wondered how harvest festivals came about? Carole Varley explains and talks to three family businesses about their love of Hampshire produce
Farming families must have once looked forward to autumn with much the same mixture of joy and dread as we do Christmas today. Not only was it one of the busiest and most profitable times of year, when all the grains, fruit and vegetables were gathered in and stored, preserved and pickled for the colder months ahead, it often also fell to the farmer's wife to feed the hordes of fieldworkers drafted in to help with the harvesting, culminating in a great Michaelmas Day celebration supper.
From the past
The ritual, like so many in our yearly calendar, reaches back to Pagan times. The cutting of the last sheaf corn was particularly significant, since this contained the dwindling spirit of the corn goddess. To preserve her powers until Plough Monday in January, when she would be ceremoniously placed back into the soil for a Dr Who-like regeneration for the following year's crops, the sheaf would be fashioned into a corn dolly, which was known in Hampshire as a kern baby. This was brought back from the fields amid much singing, dancing and drinking.
The more sober, modern tradition of celebrating the harvest festival in church began as late as 1843, when the Rev Robert Hawker invited the parish to join him in a service of thanksgiving in his church at Morwenstow, Cornwall. The idea quickly caught on, with special hymns, such as We Plough the Fields and Scatter, written specially for the event, which helped to popularise the custom still further.
Back in her hot kitchen, however, the farmer's wife would be busy making the supper, baking cakes and pies and preparing the meat of the surplus livestock that were often killed and eaten or preserved at this time year, before the need for winter fodder set in. This would all be washed down by homemade cordials, ales, wines and cider. The supper would often be accompanied by games, music and dancing and the levels of merriment reached can best be summed up by one happy musician, who is once reported to have agreed to jolly things along by performing on his cornet, just so long as: "Thee prop I up somewhere so's I can't vall over and
I'll keep playing for thee."
Have a Hampshire harvest
Get the taste
For a taste of what those fieldworkers might have been downing, you need look no further than New Forest Cider, based at Burley in the heart of the New Forest.
Here, in what was once a cow shed and village dairy, you can sample cider straight from the barrel. As Bob Tapp, who has been running the brewery for more than 20 years, says, "People are much more interested these days in eating and drinking traditional drinks and food stuffs."
Also much like in the old days, the business is very much a family affair involving Bob's wife, his two daughters and his eldest son, while the seven-acre smallholding where the brewery now stands was once owned by his mother. A cider drinker himself, Bob says that he managed to turn his hobby into a career when he was made redundant - from smoking mackerel in Cornwall - and took over as cider-maker from one Ely Simm, to whom all the local smallholders had previously brought their apples to be pressed, and from whom he inherited some of his vintage presses.
Now, using fruit from his orchards, as well as traditional cider orchards, the apples are harvested and pressed this month and in November. After fermentation, the cider, of which he makes some 10,000 to 15,000 gallons each year, is stored
in empty whisky barrels to enhance the flavour and colour, with the aim, says Bob "of producing an interesting draught cider that is free from artificial flavouring and colouring".
Get the flavour
The grape pickers at Danebury Vineyard, Stockbridge, know all about the hard work of harvesting and they have also savoured the delights of the harvest supper, for which the vineyard provides a selection of locally-made Loosehanger cheeses each year.
Loosehanger is based on the edge of the New Forest at Redlynch, and their Hampshire Rose cheese, a hard variety that has been matured on traditional wooden slats for at least six months, is, to use the words of its maker Ness Williams, "a real old traditional-flavoured farmhouse cheese with a bit of bite to it".
But that's by no means all that Ness, who has been running the business with her husband Gwyn for the past seven years, has to offer. Producing up to one-and-a-half tons of cheese each month, they make some 15 different varieties, including Ness's favourite, the award-winning Old Sarum Blue, which she describes as being like a dolcelatte.
What makes Loosehanger's cheese particularly special is the rich milk, which they source from traditional farmer Bob Ody, whose herd of Ayshire cows at Woodgarston Farm, Upper Wooton, Basingstoke, grazes on the herb-rich and chalky Hampshire Downs. "The fat droplets in the milk give the cheese a very silky texture and make it rich in protein, while the chalk gives it extra calcium", explains Ness, for whom the best
part of the job "is designing new cheeses. Its fabulous when you get the finished product."
Get the produce
At Blackmoor Farm Shop you can still bite into the old-fashioned varieties of apples, pears and plums that our forebears would have feasted on after the harvest, as well the newer varieties, all of which are grown on the Blackmoor Estate.
Locally-grown vegetables, fresh cream and ice cream from the local dairy, as well as a variety of cheese, additive-free meat and preserves are also available at the shop all year round, not to mention the cakes, shortbread, pies and savoury flans baked on the premises by shop manager Amanda Luty.
"In fact, the pies are very much a key part of what we do," says Amanda, who has worked there for some 16 years and who makes between 40 and 60 of them each week. "Particularly when we use our own produce in them. When the home-grown asparagus was in season, for instance, we could barely keep up with the demand for quiche."
Amanda, who loves her job not just because it's only a seven-minute walk to work across the village, but also because of the variety it offers, since she not only toils in the kitchen, the shop and the office, she also takes her wares to farmers' markets up and down the county, meeting lots of people along the way.
Blackmoor Estate, which has been growing fruit for 80 years, is still very much a family-owned farming enterprise, and Amanda's own family is involved in the business, with her husband working as a dairyman and her son employed on the fruit side.
"Family is part and parcel of making the business what it is today," says Amanda. "Blackmoor is a really nice place to work and a lovely place to live", she adds. "In the lanes round here, you are still more likely to encounter a tractor than a car."
5 Harvest festivals to visit
October 2 - 4
Zig Zag Fest
Selborne's annual beer and wine festival is taking place at the Selborne Arms and Selborne Village Hall. Food is from farms within the village, plus there will be 30 local real ales to try.
Take a trip to Manor Farm Country Park from 10am for demonstrations and displays on a harvest theme. There is a traditional harvest festival service at St Bartholomew Church on the Sunday at 2.30pm.
October 3 - 4
Hampshire Harvest Weekend, winchester
From 10am - 5pm
A free family event celebrating Hampshire's food and farming, including children's activities, farming displays, livestock, and a Hampshire Farmers Market. Entertainment from local musical ensembles & Winchester Morris Men. There will be an opportunity to join the Dean for a Hampshire Sunday lunch (tickets tbc), followed by a Hampshire Harvest Festival Service at 3.30pm.
Autumn Pumpkin Festival
It's the pumpkin party of the year at Royal Victoria County Park from 12pm to help raise funds for the Jubilee Sailing Trust. Expect food, games, storytelling, stalls and art activities. Entry costs £1.50 for adults and 50p for children over five years.
October 17 - 18
and Food Festival
A celebration of Hampshire's finest beer and food producers at Milestones Museum in Basingstoke. Demonstrations, exhibitions, craft workshops and talks, alongside live music and dance, street entertainment, traditional games, competitions and children's activities.