Bringing in May: Celtic Recipes For Your Own May Day Feast

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Bundles of braised leeks and spring greens are fastened with leek stems.
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Wine spiced with sweet woodruff leaves is a throwback to the ancient Druid practice of using the spring herb to mark winter’s end.
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Wine spiced with sweet woodruff leaves is a throwback to the ancient Druid practice of using the spring herb to mark winter’s end.
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Marking the end of the winter diet of salted meat and dried produce, Beltaine is a time for fresh greens and berries and celebrating nature’s rekindled generosity.
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Wine spiced with sweet woodruff leaves is a throwback to the ancient Druid practice of using the spring herb to mark winter’s end.
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Ancient Celts offered traditional oatcakes to animals and plants in return for a full harvest.
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Warm goat cheese is surrounded by greens and fresh herbs and topped with mushrooms.

Beltaine (pronounced Bee-YAWL-tinnuh), is one of two pagan fire festivals in the Celtic year. Held on the eve of May Day, April 30, it marks the beginning of summer and the light half of the Celtic calendar, and it celebrates the return of life and fertility.

While the Irish-Gaelic word for May is Beltaine, the literal translation is “bright” or “brilliant fire,” derived from the bonfires lit in honor of Bel, the god of light, fire, and healing. The central fire or tein-eigen made from sacred oak was strictly maintained by Druids (the priestly sector of Celtic society). Humans leapt and danced through the embers, and cattle were driven through them as an act of purification. Often, a torch-led procession made its way around the fields to evoke fertility in the plants. So important was the fire that all hearth fires were extinguished so they could be rekindled from this sacred fire every year.

Themes of death, fertility, and rebirth are woven throughout the rites and rituals of Beltaine. According to tradition, the Great Father (sun) impregnates the Great Mother (earth), dies, and is reborn as her son (crops). The Maypole connects earth and sky, triggering the renewal of the growing season and spawning fertility dances held on the first day of May. “Bringing in the May” was a tradition of gathering herbs, flowers, and branches to represent the earth’s healing and fertile energies and distributing them at each house.

Beltaine marked the end of winter’s subsistence diet of salted meats and dried produce. Heralding spring, Beltaine offers berries, herbs, and fresh greens in the evening’s feast. A special oatcake or bannock made from eggs, milk, and oatmeal was eaten by all and offered to animals and plants in return for the promise of a full harvest. Beltaine embodied the fresh tastes from nature’s rekindled generosity.

A May Day Feast


Serves 4

The Celts mined salt in Hallstatt (in modern Austria) and are thought to have helped introduce butter churning to modern Europe. They made cheese, especially goat cheese, and preserved it with salt.

12 ounces chanterelle, cap, shiitake,
or oyster mushrooms
1 large garlic clove, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 ounces soft goat cheese, cut into 4 rounds
2 cups mesclun or spinach
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
1/2 cup fresh nasturtium flowers (optional)
2 tablespoons white wine, tarragon, or white vinegar

Clean mushrooms and slice. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in skillet and cook garlic, mushrooms, and chives over medium heat until just tender. Season with salt and pepper. Lift mushrooms out of pan with slotted spoon onto lightly oiled baking sheet, dividing into 4 portions. Place goat cheese round in center of each pile. Bake at 400°F about 4 minutes, until cheese melts and browns slightly.

Meanwhile, wash and dry lettuce and herbs. Toss together with flowers in medium bowl. Divide into 4 portions and place on warmed plates. Add remaining oil to skillet, turn heat to medium, and stir to collect pan juices and bits. Add vinegar and simmer until reduced slightly.

Spoon hot mushrooms, juices, and cheese over lettuce, then drizzle with hot oil and vinegar. Serve immediately.


Makes 8 cakes

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
21/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup dried currants
11/4 cup buttermilk
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

Heat oven to 425° F. Grease a large baking sheet.

In large bowl, combine rolled oats, flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and baking soda. With pastry blender or two knives, cut the shortening in until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in currants.

Add buttermilk to dry ingredients and mix lightly with fork until mixture clings together and forms a soft dough. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead gently 5 or 6 times. Divide dough in half. With lightly floured rolling pin, roll one half of dough into a 7-inch round. Cut into 4 wedges. Repeat with remaining half of dough.

Place oatcakes, 1 inch apart, on greased baking sheet. Pierce tops with a fork. Brush tops with egg yolk. Bake in preheated oven 8-10 minutes. Serve warm.


Serves 4

For the Celts, salmon represented wisdom. Wild or cultivated angelica leaves work well as a wrap and impart a delicate anise flavor. Substitute lettuce leaves, grape leaves, or beet greens if angelica leaves are not available.

4 large, wild-caught salmon fillets
11/4 cups basil pesto
4 angelica leaves, soaked in water

Cut salmon fillets in half, spread 1-2 tablespoons of pesto on one half and cover with the other half of fish. Place 1 stuffed fillet in the center of each angelica leaf. Wrap tightly and secure with twine.

Grill on barbecue 4-6 minutes per side. Check doneness by unwrapping one package and cutting into flesh. If it is opaque and flakes easily with a fork, it is done.


Makes 1/2 cup

Gather wild nettles using gloves for protection from the nasty stings. Heating the nettles dissipates the oxalic acid in the leaves and renders them safe to eat. For an alternative, substitute chopped fresh sorrel and omit the steaming.

1/2 cup fresh nettle leaves or fresh sorrel
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
3 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
1 tablespoon fresh chopped chervil
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-4 tablespoons yogurt

Clean nettle leaves under warm water, immediately transfer to a medium saucepan, and cover with lid. Turn heat to medium-high and heat nettles just until leaves wilt. Remove from pan and cool.

Blend all ingredients in a small food processor or blender until well mixed. Store in the refriger­ator 3 days.


Serves 4

12 fresh leeks
1 pound fresh French sorrel or spinach
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
11/2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, chervil, basil, or thyme

Trim, split, and thoroughly clean leeks and cut off dark green tops so that leeks are about 5-6 inches in length; divide into 4 lots. (If you’re using wild leeks, trim and thoroughly clean; leave tops on). Reserve 4 long, green leek stems to tie bunches. Clean and trim sorrel and divide into 4 lots.

Slice each reserved leek stem into 4 strips and use to tie each bundle together. Make bundles by gathering 1 lot of sorrel and surrounding them with 1 lot of leeks. Tie bundles tightly with 4 strips of leek leaf. Make 3 more bundles. In a large skillet over moderate heat, heat butter and oil. Add garlic and onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add leek bundles, stock, and herbs; season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover skillet and adjust heat so stock simmers gently. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Lift out bundles with a slotted spoon and keep warm. Increase heat and reduce stock by about half. Drizzle over bundles to serve.


Makes one 9-inch tart

11/4 cups milk
1/4 vanilla bean
3 tablespoons fresh chopped sweet cicely
2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup raisins
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons rosewater
1/3 cup blanched almonds
1 9-inch pie shell, baked and cooled
3 cups sliced strawberries

In a medium saucepan, combine milk, vanilla bean, sweet cicely, basil, 1/4 cup sugar, and raisins. Scald by heating just to the point when bubbles form around the inside of the pan. Remove from heat and lift out vanilla bean.

In a small bowl, mix rosewater into almonds until it forms a paste-like consistency; set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat egg yolks with 1 tablespoon sugar until thick. Beat in half the hot milk. Return milk and egg yolk mixture to the pan and heat to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Stir in almond paste, simmer 10 minutes, until thickened. Cover with plastic wrap and let cool completely.

To assemble the tart, spoon the almond cream evenly into the tart shell and arrange the strawberries neatly over the top. Refrigerate until ready to serve.


In Germany sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is known as the Waldmeister–“master of the forest.”

1/2 cup sweet woodruff leaves
2 bottles white Rhine wine
1 32-ounce bottle soda water
1/2 cup hulled and sliced strawberries

1 to 2 hours before serving, place woodruff in a punch bowl. Pour wine over and allow to stand. Just before serving, add soda water and strawberries.

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