The alarm goes in the dark. The day looms ahead: rain, aches, itches, work. Wonderful possibilities are passing you by. Strangers are lost and unhappy and grief-struck. We’re an insignificant speckle amid infinite space. Yes, ‘tis the festive season again. Pass me my daylight therapy lamp, for I am s.a.d.
If the dark is getting to you and you can’t quite face the prospect of dousing everything in glitter and putting a paper crown on your head, then rest and be thankful – I would like to offer a very different winter ritual as an antidote to gaudy consumption and getting drunk on eggnog.
When I was a kid, our parents didn’t really encourage us to believe in Santa Claus. Maybe they just didn’t feel like lying to us about the existence of an immortal drunkard whose only friends were reindeer, unaffiliated to any creed, keeping track of the moral fortitude of children everywhere. (Contrarily, we insisted on believing. Leaving a carrot out for ‘Rudolph’ on Christmas Eve, immune to parental indifference. Rebels without a Claus). Perhaps because of this, much more dear to me was a book called The Mousehole Cat. This was the winter story that tied itself fast to my heart. I couldn’t have explained why I loved it, back when I was a little critter, but now I think it was because it was tender and gentle and serious (and it contained an enormous cat in the sky). It’s a gorgeous tale of storms, kinship and bravery. There’s mild peril, delicate hope, and candlelight signalling out to sea. And ofcourse, like all the best rituals, it had a celebratory dish to go with it, the amazingly weird Stargazey Pie.
The story is about a fisherman, Tom, and his cat Mowzer. All winter, terrible storms have been sweeping the sea ragged, and the fishermen in the Cornish village of Mousehole can’t get out of the harbour with their boats to go and catch fish. The whole village is facing the prospect of starvation. Somebody has to step up. The night before Christmas Eve, Tom decides it is up to him to go out into the storm, because he is old, he has no family, and if the worst should happen – he has already had a good, long life. He bravely ventures out of the harbour, and Mowzer can’t let him go alone, so she jumps into the boat too. As he sets off, all the villagers light candles in their windows and stand out in the dark holding lanterns, so the little flames can shine out to let him know that they are all there, thinking of him. (If you don’t have a tear in your eye by now, you are dead inside).
When Tom and Mowzer get out into the wilds of the sea, Mowzer considers the storm: an enormous, gorgeous blue-and-green cat, seething, god-like and grumpy, above them. She purs, and storm stops to listen. Mowzer consoles the storm with her purring, the storm rests, and in the glassy calm sea, Tom catches a huge haul of fish. Tom and Mowzer return to the village with their catch, and all the fish are baked into a huge Stargazey Pie. Everyone eats pie, they make sure Mowzer gets a share, and there is much rejoicing.
Stargazey Pie is a real thing – a Cornish dish with fish heads poking out of the pie crust, as if they’re looking up at the stars. It was baked this way to let the oils released in cooking seep back into the pie, and also (wonderfully) to prove that there was fish in the pie. It even made its way on to the Great British Bake-Off (so it must be highly thought of in baking circles.)
The children’s book is based on a real Cornish myth that apparently dates back to pre-Christian times. I love the idea of proving that there’s fish in your pie. It speaks of the deprivations of the distant past, the precariousness of life and our dependence on the world around us. I think I actually love it even more because there’s the suggestion floating around the internet that the whole thing was made up by a pub landlord in Mousehole in the 1960s. Anyway, on the 23rd of December every year they have a procession of candlelight and they all eat Stargazey Pie, even in this day and age, and that is good enough for me.
I love Christmas, and presents, and a fun-size mars bar or two, but as well as the usual, spiritually bereft Christmas-shopping-meltdown, I would like to suggest Stargazey Pie and its tale as a joyous winter tradition for the heathens. Don’t be sad. It isn’t all meaningless tinselly things and terrible office parties at this time of year. There’s also gratitude and pie for the taking. And the intrinsic joy in seeing the horrified reaction of loved ones as you dump a pie full of fish heads on the table for Christmas dinner.
Actually, the recipe looks utterly delicious and even a bit luxurious (fish, bacon, quails eggs and pastry, anyone?) … you can find it here.
Happy Hibernation Season xxx