THE ELEMENTS IN ONE MONTH’S ENTRY - MAY
May is a month when our pagan roots poke above the surface a little more determinedly than usual. May Day, also known as Beltane, is a festival we can’t seem to resist celebrating, and there still exist rich traditions involving flower crowned girls, green and beribboned men, hobby hosses and more, up and down the country. Perhaps it is down to the irresistible nature of this moment in the year: early May is when the slow and halting move from winter to summer finally becomes irresistible, and green leaves and white blossom break out all over. Why wouldn’t we celebrate.
The moon in May
May’s full moon is important for Buddhists, and is called Vesak or Buddha Purnima. It is a day to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Guatama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and is sometimes also known as ‘Buddha’s Birthday’. Buddhists dress in white and visit temples on this day, and make special efforts to bring happiness to those less fortunate than themselves, through gifts and deeds.
Many Native American tribes used full moons as their calendars, and named each one according to natural and agricultural features of the month. The full moon in May was known as the Flower Moon by some tribes, as spring flowers are in abundance in May, and by others as the Corn Planting Moon, Milk Moon or Hare Moon.
The moon’s phases May 2018
3rd quarter: 8th May (moonrise: 00.01am, moonset 2.07pm)
New moon: 15th May (moonrise: 01.22am, moonset 5.16pm)
1st quarter: 22nd May (moonrise 3.21am, moonset: 7.30pm)
Full moon: 29th May (moonrise: 5.59am, moon set: 9.55pm)
Planting by the moon
Best dates for sowing root crops: 1-15th May
Best dates for sowing and planting flowering and fruiting plants: 15th-29th May
Essay: The May Queen
The countryside in early May is an explosion of green and froth, all fresh, young, burgeoning life, all blossom and potential. The May Queen is the personification of this moment. She is traditionally young and beautiful, not quite a child and not quite a woman, but someone on the cusp of her full life. There is an innocence and purity about the crowning of the queen but she is not entirely guileless: there is a hint of a darker side to the celebrations (some older traditions even included a ritualised sacrifice), and just as the perfect white blossom that she wears on her crown will soon be pollinated, so the May Queen is essentially a woman on the edge of her sexual awakening. This is captured in rather melodramatic fashion in Tennyson’s ‘The May Queen’. Here our soon-to-be May Queen starts the poem talking of flowers, garlands and white dresses but before long is revelling in her status over the other unchosen girls and flirting cruelly with poor Robin, who she passes over for - one is lead to suspect - one of the ‘bolder lads’ she expects to meet on the day. Such flagrant enjoyment of her own beauty and youth cannot go unpunished of course and in true Victorian style we then fast forward to New Year’s day where we find our heroine dying of some unnamed illness that may bear mysterious relation to her ‘wild and wayward’ ways. That’ll teach her for messing with those shepherd boys. A less cruel but still problematic fate meets the Queen of the May in the traditional folk song of the same name. Out gathering may blossom she is met by a man who offers to go with her into the meadows to find more, and though she at first refuses for fear of being led astray, he persists and they do inevitably end up sitting together on the mossy green bank – as gentle a euphemism as I’ve ever heard. But it’s all ok because the next day he marries her so that ‘the world should have nothing to say’. Lucky girl. Death-by sexual-liberation or reluctant quickie marriage, either way, sex is involved. The May Queen starts the day as sweet and innocent as the blossom in her crown and ends the day, well...a little more fruitful.
Despite the depressing outcomes of past interpretations I love the figure of the May Queen: she has youth and burgeoning potential plus a gently saucy awareness of her own appeal. She is perfect for this fresh and promising moment in the year, and perhaps that is why she persists in May Fairs up and down the country on May 1st while so many of our semi-pagan celebrations have drifted away from us. This is a moment for fun, frolics and petal strewn mossy green banks. The birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees are all at it. But as the stories make clear, things must soon turn serious for the May Queen just as they do for the wildlife and the crops around her, and the real work of the year and of life - the swelling, maturing and reproducing - must begin.
Food in season in May:
Although we are not yet into the most bountiful months, May brings with it a burst of some of the most delicious seasonal crops. It is a month for quality, if not yet quantity. The vegetable crops that dominate the kitchen garden this month are perennials such as asparagus, sorrel and artichoke, those that do not need to be sown anew each spring and so are up and ready early. Overwintered garden crops such as broad beans and peas may start producing now too, and do make sure you lift a few garlic heads when they are still young and green. Treats such as Jersey Royal potatoes and apricots start arriving from the Channel Islands and France, as well as early strawberries from UK growers.
Vegetables: Asparagus, globe artichoke, chicory, new potato, radish, rocket, spring onion, chives and chive flowers, watercress, peas, broad beans, sorrel, spinach, samphire
Fruit: Rhubarb, apricot, strawberry
Fish and meat: Crab, sardine, plaice, lamb
A recipe for May
Roast asparagus with soft poached egg and dukkah
If split-second timing isn’t your forte, roast rather than boil your asparagus. You can then serve your spears either straight from the oven or later, at room temperature. They are just as good, possibly better. The roasting makes the tips crispy and brings out the nuttiness of the asparagus too, which is complemented by the nutty dukkah.
For the dukkah:
80g sesame seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon flaked sea salt
12 asparagus spears
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
Zest and juice of half a lemon
Slices of good bread
You can make the dukkah ahead of the rest of the dish and store it in an airtight container for around two months. Preheat your oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Spread the hazelnuts onto a baking tray and cook for four or five minutes or until slightly toasted. Tip them onto a clean tea towel and rub off as much of the crackled skins as possible. In the bowl of a food processor, process the skinned nuts until they are coarsely chopped and transfer to a large bowl. Toast the sesame seeds in a hot frying pan until golden brown, and tip them into the bowl. Add the cumin and coriander seeds to the frying pan and toast until they begin to pop, grind them in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder and add to the bowl, along with the salt and pepper, and mix well.
Heat your oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Trim the end off of the asparagus and tip them into a bowl with two tablespoons of the oil and a pinch of salt, turning them so all are well coated. Pour out onto a baking tray and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the ends are slightly crispy, then remove from the oven and set aside. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Crack your first egg into a small cup, turn the pan down to a simmer, then lower the cup slightly into the water before tipping the egg gently in. Repeat with the other egg. After about two minutes prod to see that the white is set while the yolk is still soft, then lift into a colander or sieve. Place six spears each of the asparagus onto two plates, then top with an egg each, a little olive oil and lemon juice, and a sprinkling of dukkah and lemon zest. Serve immediately, with bread to mop up the juices.
To sow in the kitchen garden in May:
The days are lengthening dramatically and growth increases in leaps this month. Soil is warming but nights are still cold. You can sow hardy vegetables such as peas and carrots direct but hold off planting out tender crops such as courgettes and tomatoes until the end of the month.
Sow direct: beetroot, Brussels sprouts, Cabbages, calabrese, carrots, cauliflowers, chicory, Florence fennel, Kale, kohl rabi, land cress, lettuces, spinach, sprouting broccoli, turnips
Sow outdoors, undercover: beetroot, corn salad, cucumber, French beans, runner beans, sweetcorn
Sow indoors: chillies and peppers, courgettes and summer squashes, pumpkins and winter squashes, kale, gherkins