Saturday, November 24, 2018

Devil's Brew; Lucifer vs Blackberries

It's my favourite time of the year. I adore Autumn, with its 
misty mornings, coloured leaves and golden light. After the dryness and heat of the summer, the coolness and frosts are welcome. It's the perfect time for long country walks and berry picking. Although, according to folklore, you might want to be careful about what you pick after the 29th of September; St Michaelmas Day. The feast of the Archangel Michael, associated with the beginning of Autumn, this holiday has many stories to it and everyone who celebrates it seems to have their own interesting ways to do so.* My favourite story associated with St Michaelmas of one of spite and blackberries.
Folklore tells us that not only is the 29th of September** the feast of St Michael, but it is also the day that St Michael drop kicked the Devil out of Heaven. Now the fall from Heaven was long and unpleasant, so when he collided with the Earth the Devil was already in a bad mood. But what made that mood even worse was what broke his fall. A blackberry bush. Not a little one either, but one of those big ones that tower above you, that have the biggest thorns and always have the plumpest berries just out of reach. After flailing around helplessly in the bush for a while, the Devil finally managed to pull himself out. And he was not amused in the slightest. Shouting and cursing, he decided the best way to express his rage was to piss on the poor bush. This is an act he has apparently repeated every St Michaelmas Day since then, though in some versions of the story he spits on the bush rather than relieving himself. Blackberries tend to get bitter later in the season and prone to rotting on the bush, most likely this is what lead to this particular bit of folklore. Whatever the case, it is rather amusing that people believed the Devil had nothing better to do with his time than going around and peeing on each and every bramble out of spite. But then that is the folkloric Devil for you; a sore loser, often a little dim and easily fooled, as you will no doubt see in future folklore related posts.
Now, that's the folklore. How about a recipe? I could have suggested a pie or crumble, even a sauce to go with chicken, but I'm going with a nice Blackberry Whiskey. There's nothing more pleasant on a chilly winters night than a little glass of something warming, but I'd still like to take this opportunity to remind you to PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY.

That being said, here is the recipe for Devil's Brew:

  • 1 bottle of whisky, doesn't matter what brand but I recommend a nice, dark, smokey one.
  • 2 cups blackberries, picked after the 29th of September.
  • 1 and a 1/2 cups of dark brown sugar.
  • A mason jar big enough to hold everything.
  • A bottle big enough to hold the whisky.


  • Sterilize the mason jar and let it dry, while it's drying wash the blackberries and set aside til needed.
  • Once you're ready to begin, place the blackberries in the jar with the sugar and give it a good shake.
  • Pour the whisky into the jar, over the blackberry/sugar mix.
  • Give the whole lot a good stir, fasten the lid and store it somewhere dark and warm, but not too warm.
  • Let it brew for about 6 months , gently shaking once a week to mix the sugar. Taste it at the 5 month mark, if you feel it needs to be sweeter you can add another half cup of sugar.
  • After 5-6 months it's time to strain and bottle your whisky. Take a fine strainer, tea strainer or square of linen. Place this over the top of a jug and strain the whisky through it, when all the whiskey has been poured though squish the blackberries with a fork to release any whiskey that as soaked into them.
  • Dispose of the used blackberries. Keep them out of reach of animals and children, they still retain some of the alcohol but don't taste good enough to eat anymore.
  • Pour the Whiskey from the jug into a sterilized bottle.

Once you've got your whiskey bottled you can start drinking it straight away but it's best to leave it till the winter months, to let it settle a little. You should be left with a dark, almost black brew. Sweet, slightly thick and aromatic, this whisky goes down warm and has a kick like the Devil himself. It's perfect on its own or with tonic, goes quite nice in an apple and blackberry crumble, you can use it in jams and it's even quite pleasant on good vanilla ice cream. I've been using (and enjoying) this recipe for a good few years now, it's evolved a lot from the original, which called for brewers sugar and was unbearably sweet. I've picked more berries for this year's whisky and I've picked a couple of cups extra for an extra Devil's Brew project as I intend to try my hand at Blackberry and chilli Mead. We'll see how it goes and, if all goes well, then you can expect another post about the Devil in Folklore and recipe soon. If you try out this recipe and enjoy it, let me know in the comments or tag me in a Twitter post, I'd love to see what you think and see some photos of your brew. You can find me on Twitter at @LWall54451552.

*I was especially impressed with the home made Devil/Dragon pinata!
**In some of the stories I've read the dates are different, giving the date of October the 10th or 11th instead of September the 29th. Known by some as Old Michaelmas Day, and is considered another day on which the Devil was evicted from Heaven. This was most likely caused by a calendar reform in 1752.

Seriously though, please drink responsibly. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Back to basics: the original Jack'o'lantern

Thanks to IrishFireside, CC

Halloween is upon us and the supermarkets are packed with beautiful, bright pumpkins, just ready to be carved into all sorts of wonderful and terrifying designs. Perfect to ward off the ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, right?
How about if I told you that the humble Jack-o-Lantern has a long history, it has evolved over time and is linked to folklore? Two of my favourite things in one candlelit package; folklore and Halloween. Which is why I found myself standing in our local supermarket, trying to choose between a Swede and a turnip whilst wondering how the hell I'm going to fit a candle in such tiny turnips. One awkward internet search later (have you ever tried to maintain your grip on a turnip, a swede and use a mobile phone at the same time? Not easy.) and I discover that the rather handsome fellow on the right is, in fact, a swede. Still not easy to carve, but probably more forgiving than a tiny turnip. I would be lying if I said I wasn't relieved, I'm clumsy and I value my fingers. Our local A&E is not where I want to spend my Halloween, thank you very much. I make my purchases and scuttle off home. There's an icy chill in the air, as a cold front has crept down from the Arctic. Many parts of the country will spend Halloween under a blanket of snow. I am lucky, being too far down the country to experience anything other than the biting cold.

The Jack-o-Lantern we know today has changed a lot over the years. They started off as an Irish tradition, with their roots firmly planted in folklore. With the pumpkin not being native to Ireland, the people would use turnips or swedes instead. These tough veggies are hard to cut, even with a good knife. It must have been a relief when they were introduced to pumpkins, so bright and easy to carve. So unlike the swede, which is a devil to hollow out and shape, seemingly resenting and resisting all attempts to do so. Their origin can be traced back to a folktale concerning a man known as Stingy Jack. An unpleasant nickname for an unpleasant man. Jack had a terrible reputation; a drunkard, tight with his money and a cheat. And, as so often happens in such tales, Jack became so infamous that the Devil himself came to to hear about him and decided to see if the stories he had been told were true. What persuaded him that the rumors were true we may never know, but the Devil approached Jack with the intention of dragging his soul to Hell. Imagine his surprise when Jack agreed to go, providing the Devil would allow him one last drink first. Unable to resist granting such a harmless and simple wish, the Devil agreed, taking Jack to the nearest pub where the two whiled the night away while Jack savoured his last pint. The problems started when it came to paying for the ale. Jack was quite unwilling to pay for it himself, insisting that the Devil pick up the tab, even suggesting the Devil trick the bar tender by turning himself into a sixpence to cover the cost. After all, the Devil could take so many forms, and he could always take his original form afterwards. How hard could it be to turn into one little coin? Annoyed at Jack's baiting, but up for the prank, the Devil turned himself into a coin as asked, fully expecting to be handed over to the barkeep. It was the moment Jack had been waiting for all evening. He took hold of the coin and, instead of handing it over in payment, thrust it deep into his coat pocket where he kept a crucifix. This small, holy item prevented the Devil from turning back to his previous form and he found himself trapped. A master trickster, Jack had played the Devil like a fiddle. He was not a stupid man either and had already guessed he couldn't avoid the Devil forever. Although trapped in the form of a coin, eventually the Devil would escape and then there would be hell to pay. So Jack offered his captive a deal; ten more years of freedom for Jack in exchange for it's freedom. The Devil took the deal and made his escape.

Ten years passed quickly.
Staggering home drunk, Jack once again found himself approached by the Devil. And once again Jack seemed remarkably fine with the whole situation. But he did have one last request. Before he was carried to Hell he would like an apple. Just one last taste of an apple. Like with Jack's last last request the Devil saw no harm in it. He wasn't changing his form, so he couldn't be trapped in Jack's pocket and granting the request was childs play, all he had to do was climb up a nearby apple tree and fetch the fruit. Jack was too drunk to do it himself. What could go wrong? As you've probably guessed, quite a lot could go wrong. Cunning Jack waited til the Devil was up the tree picking the apple, then used his pocket knife to carve crosses in the tree trunk. The poor Devil* didn't realise what his victim was doing until it was far too late and he was trapped in the tree by the sign of the cross. Jack had done it again and once more agreed to give the Devil his freedom if he would make a another deal with Jack. This time Jack didn't ask for another ten years of freedom, his request was that the Devil would never be able to take his soul and drag it to hell. The Devil gladly agreed. He was eager to get out of the tree and to wash his hands of Stingy Jack forever. Jack cut the crosses from the tree bark. Freed at last, the Devil scuttled back to Hell, hoping to never see Jack again. Jack staggered home to sleep off that nights beers. Thinking his soul safe from the Devil, Jack didn't even bother to change his way. The drinking continued, as did the trickery. Years passed, eventually this unhealthy lifestyle ended his life and Jack marched on up to the Heavenly Gates, expecting to be let in. But, to his horror, he was turned away. He'd been so awful in life that there was no way God was going to let him into heaven. Annoyed by what had happened, Jack decided to try his luck elsewhere and headed to the gates of Hell instead. The Devil still hadn't forgotten their deal or how Jack had tricked him, not once but twice and he was still angry about it. He turned Jack away like the afterlife's best bouncer, Jack's name wasn't on the list, he wasn't getting in. However, feeling merciful, the Devil tossed Jack a small chunk of burning hot ember to light his way as he walked the earth for the rest of eternity. Jack happened to have a turnip in his pocket and hollowed it out so he could carry the burning coal without hurting himself. From then til the end of time, the phantom of Stingy Jack roams the night, his way lit by his hellish turnip lantern. This lead to a change of names for him, Stingy Jack being changed to Jack of the Lantern, or simply just Jack o Lantern.
It's possible that this tale was the result of people seeing swamp lights** or ball lighting and not knowing what it was. Nevertheless the story stuck in peoples imaginations and evolved over time along with the Jack o Lantern itself. It became common practice to hollow yourself out a turnip lamp and carve a terrifying face in it. When lit, this lamp was guaranteed to scare away any evil spirits or undead ghouls that might be stalking you on All Hallows Eve, when the dead roamed the earth. This practice changed even more when taken to America and switched to pumpkins. In 19th Century America it became a fun prank for children to carve a pumpkin lamp and roam around at night to terrify other travelers. Oh, and of course, like the veggies before them, a pumpkin lamp could scare away wandering ghosts.

Back at home, tucked up in the warm with a cup of tea, it's my turn to carve a traditional Jack o Lantern. Eager to get started, I have neglected to research exactly how to do this. I choose to wing it.
🎃 Take a sharp knife and take the top of the turnip off. 
🎃 Hollow the turnip out. This will take a while, as turnips are tough vegetables. Your best bet is to score the inside with a knife and then hack away with a spoon and strong sense of determination. It took me around three hours to hollow my turnip out, but that's only because I stopped for a break half way through.
I would advice leaving at least a centimeter of solid flesh at the bottom of the turnip. This will stop your candle from falling out.
🎃 Grab a pen and outline your lanterns face. Keep it simple and be careful while you're carving. I found this to be the toughest part of carving my turnip and narrowly avoided stabbing myself in my finger. I also tried to keep mine similar to the original, though I could never manage that level of terrifying.
🎃 Once you've got the face sorted you can punch two holes on either side of your lantern, for the string used as the handle. Once again, be careful if doing this with a knife. Environmentally friendly and an excellent improvised hole punch, I used the mental drinking straws my friend Fee bought me for Christmas to make my holes. Thread the string through the holes and the some nice big knots to secure them. I wouldn't advise doing this if you are using real candles to light the lantern, as the string can burn. As can the lid of the lantern.
🎃 Now your lantern is ready to terrorise trick-or-treaters with and forever haunt their nightmares, pop an LED candle or a glowstick inside and hang it outside your door.

And there you have it, how to carve a Traditional Jack o Lantern and the folklore behind it. I wish you all a Happy Halloween and, if you carve a turnip lantern of your own, please leave a comment with a photo or tag me in the photos on Twitter; I'd love to see the ghoulish horrors that you've created.

*This isn't the only story where he gets tricked. In some stories he gets tricked into greater feats than these, even being tricked into building bridges and church doors. The Devil in folklore is a bit stupid and arrogant, and is sometimes easily fooled.

**Swamp Gas will sometimes erupt into flames, resulting in an eerie, floating light. This fascinating natural occurrence also lead to the legend of Will-o-the-Wisp.