My brain reached full capacity a long time ago. These days, if I want to retain new information, I have to chuck something out to make room. Or I have to take notes. This is one such note. St Martin’s Day catches me on the hop every year. 11 November. It’s not a day that’s etched in my brain for any reason. And shame on me, for it was on 11 November at 11am in 1918 that the Armistice halting World War I was signed in Compiègne, France – hence the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. I’m sure some part of me knew that, but it’s been buried underneath the mountain of other stuff I felt I needed to know.
In Hungary, Szent Márton Nap in days of old marked the end of farm work and the onset of advent. It’s the last feast day before what was once a 40-day fast period and it marks 50 days till Christmas (where has the year gone?). Perhaps coincidently, geese are old enough to be eaten and new wine has just been bottled. Enough for a party. Eating goose and drinking new wine on the 11th of November take you one step closer to a bountiful year ahead. Like most feast days, it too has its story.
St Martin, the son of a Roman tribune, was born centuries ago in Savaria, which is near Szombathely, Hungary (famous in my mind for being the birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Anyway, as the story goes, one night when Martin was soldiering for the Roman emperor in France, he saw a homeless guy and offered him half his cloak to keep warm. That night, in his dreams, Jesus appeared to him dressed in his cloak, thus sealing Martin’s faith and future. He left the army and turned instead to serve God. His good deeds earned him a reputation for compassion towards the poor. As his popularity grew, the powers that be decided to make him Bishop of Tours. Now, Martin wasn’t at all keen on the idea so hid in a barn full of geese when they came to collect him. But the traitorous geese gave him up which is why we eat them. And in 371 AD, Martin became Bishop of Tours.
Last year I think we ate out. The year before, himself went on a mad scramble to find the last goose in the county. This year, we ordered a whole goose from our travelling butcher. I cooked it using a recipe from Jamie’s Kitchen and as I carved, I noticed that the breastbone was white, indicative apparently of a snowy winter. A brown breastbone would herald a rainy one. It’s all ahead of us. The new wine came from friends in a neighbouring village and blessed are we indeed to have them. We were set. But I completely forgot to light a candle in the window – which would have tied in nicely with the candle lit to commemorate Armistice Day. So much to remember.
Notes for next year
- Don’t order the goose ahead of time. There’s no need. It’s expensive. And the shops will be flooded with birds around the 7th.
- Don’t leave it till the last minute to get the red cabbage. Better buy it, blanch it and freeze it ahead of time.
- Remember to light the candle in the window – at 11am – so it does double duty.
- A glass of new wine is enough – no need for a bottle. Trust yourself on this one.
- Make sure you have 5-spice – it’s hard to find so stock up.
- Use Jamie’s recipe. It worked.
- Don’t even think of saving the giblets to try out Dirty Cajun rice – you’ll never get around to it and they’ll be all you see every time you open the fridge.
- Don’t put the carcass outside – cats don’t like goose. Bin it. Double bagged.
- Close all doors leading from the kitchen as that baby will smoke and the smell of goose fat lingers for days.
- Strain the goose fat before storing. Use a metal strainer. Plastic melts.
- Check with Martin Feher at Zalaszentmárton to see if they’re doing a pilgrims’ walk along their new route.