Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Boar's Head for Christmas?

      The 'brave days of old' were, if rude and unrefined, at least distinguished by a hearty and profuse hospitality.
      During the Christmas holidays, open-house was kept by the barons and knights, and for a fortnight and upwards, nothing was heard of but revelry and feasting. The grand feast, however, given by the feudal chieftain to his friends and retainers, took place with great pomp and circumstance on Christmas-day.
      Among the dishes served up on this important occasion, the boar's head was first at the feast and foremost on the board. Heralded by a jubilant flourish of trumpets, and accompanied by strains of merry minstrelsy, it was carried—on a dish of gold or silver, no meaner metal would suffice—into the banqueting-hall by the sewer; who, as he advanced at the head of the stately procession of nobles, knights, and ladies, sang:

'Caput apri defero,
Reddens Laudes Domino.
The boar's head in hand bring I
With garlands gay and rosemary;
I pray you all sing merrily,
Quid estis in convivio.
* * * *
The boar's head, I understand,
Is the chief service in this land;
Look wherever it be found,
Service cum cantico.
* * * *
Be glad, both more and less,
For this hath ordained our steward.,
To cheer you all this Christmas
The boar's head and mustard!
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino.'

The brawner's head was then placed upon the table with a solemn gravity befitting the dignity of such a noble dish:

'Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;
His foaming tusks with some large pippin graced,
Or midst those thundering spears an orange placed,
Sauce, like himself, offensive to its foes,
The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose.'
      The latter condiment was indispensable. An old book of instruction for the proper service of the royal table says emphatically:

'First set forth mustard with brawn; take your knife in your hand, and cut brawn in the dish as it lieth, and lay on your sovereign's trencher, and see there be mustard.'

The red boar costume.
      When Christmas, in the time of the Commonwealth, was threatened with extinction by act of parliament, the tallow-chandlers loudly complained that they could find no sale for their mustard, because of the diminished consumption of brawn in the land. Parliament failed to put down Christmas, but the boar's-head never recovered its old supremacy at the table. Still, its memory was cherished in some nooks and corners of Old England long after it had ceased to rule the roast. The lessee of the tithes of Horn Church, Essex, had, every Christmas, to provide a boar's-head, which, after being dressed and garnished with bay, was wrestled for in a field adjoining the church. The custom of serving up the ancient dish at Queen's College, Oxford, to a variation of the old carol, sprung, according to the university legend, from a valorous act on the part of a student of the college in question. While walking in Shot over forest, studying his Aristotle, he was suddenly made aware of the presence of a wild-boar, by the animal rushing at him open-mouthed. With great presence of mind, and the exclamation, 'Greacum est,' the collegian thrust the philosopher's ethics down his assailant's throat, and having choked the savage with the sage, went on his way rejoicing.      The Lord Jersey of the Walpolian era was a great lover of the quondam Christmas favourite, and also—according to her own account—of Miss Ford, the lady whom Whitehead and Lord Holdernesse thought so admirably adapted for Gray's friend, Mason, 'being excellent in singing, loving solitude, and full of immeasurable affectations. 'Lord Jersey sent Miss Ford a boar's head, a strange first present, at which the lady laughed, saying she 'had often had the honor of meeting it at his lordship's table, and would have ate it had it been eatable! 'Her noble admirer resented the scornful insinuation, and indignantly replied, that the head in question was not the one the lady had seen so often, but one perfectly fresh and sweet, having been taken out of the pickle that very morning; and not content with defending his head, Lord Jersey revenged himself by denying that his heart had ever been susceptible of the charms of the fair epicure.  Robert Chambers' Book of Days, 1869

 A contemporary German meal of wild boar.

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