Sunday, 3 August 2014

Love whorts

Lughnasa (31 July-1 August) is one of the more obscure traditional festivals in Ireland. It leaves very little trace on our collective unconscious, unlike Samhain and Imbolc, which continue to be celebrated as Hallowe'en and St. Brigid's Day respectively. Lughnasa is a more mysterious beast altogether.

The traditions surrounding the event are recounted in Máire MacNeill's seminal work The Festival of Lughnasa. Named after Lugh, a Celtic god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, it was the occasion for feasting, matchmaking and feats of strength and valour at the elaborate Óenach Tailtenn, the legendary games of Tailtiu.

Little remains today of the magnificent celebrations which once surrounded Lughnasa. The Sunday beforehand has long been known as 'Garland Sunday' or 'Reek Sunday'. Today, it is best known as the day when thousands of pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. In the past, young people would climb hills and pick 'whorts' (whortleberries, also known as 'huckleberries' in the United States). This was a common name given to the wild blueberry or Vaccinium myrtillus, which was also called the bilberry or fraughan (fraochán). These would be baked into a pie or made into a garland as a gift from a girl to her admirer.

This year on Reek Sunday I went on a hike in the Dublin Mountains with the hope of finding these wild berries. As my trusty Collins Gem Food for Free guidebook, written by foraging legend Richard Mabey states: 'Widespread and locally abundant on heaths and moors... The shrub grows low, often largely concealed by dense heather', I feared that I might be on a fools errant. Nevertheless, as it was a beautiful, sunny day, I was looking forward to an enjoyable hike in the mountains in the fresh air.

I won't divulge the exact location of the hill, but it was a fairly energetic walk and it was only by chance that I found a cluster of whort bushes at the crest of the hill. Suffice to say that I was overjoyed. The first taste of the berry is something to remember; they are sweet and tangy like blackberries. To my taste, they are nicer than the cultivated variety.

I found this recipe for blueberry sponge cake, replacing the usual blueberries with my foraged wild whorts.

The cake turned out to be a delicious, perfect with vanilla ice-cream and shared amongst loved ones as a fine way to celebrate Reek Sunday. Happy Lughnasa!


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