Man has given thanks for a successful harvest since pagan times and ever since then a fruitful harvest has been an occasion for celebration and feasting. The harvest feast is an English custom with its origins in feudal England, when the Lord of the Manor provided special food and drink as a thank you to the workers, who laboured from dawn to dusk in the fields.
As time passed, this custom passed to farmers and their wives, who were responsible for feeding the large numbers of casual workers and their families, taken on at harvest time.
The culmination of the farming year became the Harvest Supper and the quantities of food and drink provided were enormous, to satisfy appetites sharpened from working in the fresh air all day. Tables groaned under the weight of a vast assortment of boiled hams, roast joints, stews and pies, ( the farmers’ wives made good use of the rabbits and hares caught in the fields during reaping) and cheeses made from the summer milk, which would have matured nicely in time for the feast. Sweet dishes included junkets, custards, cakes, tarts and pies, the latter often made using seasonal fruits such as blackberries and apples. Ale and cider flowed freely and everyone enjoyed themselves afterwards with games,singing and dancing.
The food served at the meal depended on the local crops. For instance, potatoes were the main crop of Lancashire in the north of England and they appeared in a wide variety of savoury and sweet dishes: Potato cakes, cooked on a griddle were very popular, while Farmhouse Pudding was a sweet boiled pudding made with mashed potatoes, carrots, dried fruits and spices.
One great favourite at harvest time in Yorkshire was Caraway Seed cake. Curiously it was thought that eating caraway seeds imparted strength and also prevented a person from stealing! Consequently astute farmers made sure that the seeds were included into as many foods as possible such as breads and cheeses as well as the cake.
The end of the 19th century saw the feasts develop into church suppers. After a service of thanksgiving in the local church, everyone joined in the meal afterwards and this custom still takes place in most English towns and villages today. Churches are beautifully decorated with seasonal fruits and vegetables and decorative sheaves of corn and wheat and everyone brings a gift of food which is given by the church to the poor and needy of the parish.
Try these delicious traditional recipes which are still enjoyed today in the north of England. Potato cakes are always served hot and are a tasty accompaniment to bacon, or eaten on their own with lots of butter and sprinkled lightly with salt.
Seed cake is still served as part of the traditional Sunday afternoon tea in many parts of England.
LANCASHIRE POTATO CAKES
450 g peeled potatoes
30 g butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
110 g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Boil the potatoes until tender. Drain them and mash with the butter and salt. Add the rest of the ingredients to form a soft but not sticky dough and roll out to 1/2 inch thickness and cut into rounds. Cook for about 15 minutes on a hot greased griddle or well greased frying pan, turning halfway through the cooking time. Serve at once with plenty of butter.
CARAWAY SEED CAKE
175 g butter
175 g caster (superfine) sugar
3 eggs, separated
1-2 dessert spoons caraway seeds
large pinch each of cinnamon and nutmeg (optional)
225 g self raising (self rising) flour
milk to mix
Cream the butter and sugar until pale and light and stir in the caraway seeds. Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry and gently beat in the egg yolks until well blended. Add to the creamed mixture with the spices if using and sift in the flour, adding a little milk if necessary to achieve a soft dropping consistency. Pour into a greased, lined 900g/2lb loaf tin and smooth the top. Bake for just over an hour 180C/350F until cooked through. Cool in the tin for 20 minutes then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely.