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Eating and Drinking Poems: Yeats’ The Hosting of the Sidhe

10 Comments

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new Tweetspeak Column called “Eating and Drinking Poems.” Our writers will pool their knowledge of literature, history, or legend with a well-loved recipe to create and share a full-bodied reading experience. In our inaugural piece, Kathryn Neel explains the relationship between keeping a cow’s cream fresh, Ireland’s most mischievous fairies, and Yeats’ retelling of an ancient, epic battle. 

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Long ago, while I was studying at the Yeats School in Ireland I got to immerse myself in a few of my passions: food, poetry and folklore. It didn’t hurt that my last name is associated with one of the oldest families of Ireland and that got me into a few kitchens and libraries I might have been turned away from otherwise. The pairing of Yeats, the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) and this recipe are a natural combination to me. I imagine sitting at Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ summer home, under a summer moon eating Sweet Wine Syllabub as the Sidhe dance and make music in the fields in the distance.

The Sidhe, a class of fairy, are not to be confused with the Disneyesque version of fairies (i.e. Tinkerbelle) most Americans are familiar with. As with most of the original folk tales, the stories are a good deal darker and the characters more malevolent.  According to Irish mythology the Sidhe are closer to the Elves of Tolkien’s works, but not always so noble or well meaning.

This recipe, Sweet Wine Syllabub, dates back to the Middle Ages and is still made today in Ireland. In the original text for the recipe the instructions read to add milk directly from the cow into the bowl with the sweet wine. This was an attempt to keep the Sidhe from stealing or spoiling the milk before the recipe could be completed, a favorite trick of theirs. In the Middle Ages if milk went bad prematurely or a cow stopped producing it was said the Sidhe were unhappy with the human who owned the cow. A wise human would leave an offering of cream or good spirits to make amends for offending the Sidhe; otherwise spoiled milk could just be the beginning of their pranks and the human’s bad luck. So perhaps it would be best to set aside a small dollop of whipped cream as you try this recipe … just to be on the safe side.

The Recipe:

Sweet Wine Syllabub

Sweet Wine Syllabub
A milk pudding that dates back to the Middle Ages, syllabub was first prepared by milking the cow straight into a bowl containing "Sille", a wine that used to be made in France's Champagne region. "Bub" was medieval slang for a bubbly drink. There are a number of syllabub recipes in 18th and 19th century Irish cookbooks. This modern version calls for a sweet dessert wine and whipped cream.
Sweet Wine Syllabub
A milk pudding that dates back to the Middle Ages, syllabub was first prepared by milking the cow straight into a bowl containing "Sille", a wine that used to be made in France's Champagne region. "Bub" was medieval slang for a bubbly drink. There are a number of syllabub recipes in 18th and 19th century Irish cookbooks. This modern version calls for a sweet dessert wine and whipped cream.
Instructions
  1. Stir wine, sugar, lemon juice, brandy, lemon peel and nutmeg in medium bowl.
  2. Let mixture stand at room temp. to allow flavors to blend, stirring occasionally during a 2 hour period. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)
  3. Beat cream in large bowl until very stiff peaks form. Gently fold in wine mixture, 2 tablespoons at a time. Spoon syllabub into 4 dessert cups or wine glasses. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; keep chilled.)
  4. Garnish with fresh raspberries and serve.
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The Poem:

The Hosting of the Sidhe by W.B. Yeats

The Host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;
Caolte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are a-gleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caolte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

In Irish folklore the fairies were famous for luring humans to magnificent feasts with unearthly music. Pity the poor human who ate of the feast for he or she would awaken to find 7 years of earthly time having passed for the one evening spent in the fairy mound in the company of the Sidhe. Enjoy your little corner of Ireland with Yeats, some Sweet Wine Syllabub and see if you don’t hear, off in the distance, the sound of beautiful music being played as the Sidhe ride under the moon light.

A video reading of The Hosting of the Sidhe, if your Irish is not up to speed.

Photo by epSos.de, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Kathryn Neel.

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Your Comments

10 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    You’re inaugural, Kathryn! DId you ever dream it? ;-)

    I have to say this is just the perfect use of your witty, thoughtful powers: food and poetry and folklore. More, please.

  2. Kathryn Neel says:

    Now all we need is for everyone to teleport to a kitchen in Ireland where I could cook and we could drink wine, eat, read poetry aloud and be on the look out for fairies.

  3. I couldn’t resist trying to make a poem with this post:

    Read the Instructions

    Be wise, Sweet,
    and be prepared.

    The Sidh went bad
    in the last century —

    stealing the families’
    cookbooks and bowls —

    and the wine did, too;
    it was medieval, not

    for human offering.
    To be safe, keep

    the oldest Irish cow
    at room temperature.

    Do not beat it stiff
    if its milk is bubbly

    or it passed cream
    to France with garnish

    of lemon peel. A cow
    unhappy is a recipe

    for spoiled dessert.
    Let it stand, leave it

    sitting a while. When
    it begins stirring

    prematurely, it’s best
    to read the instructions.

    Just set it aside, let
    it attempt to immerse

    in its long-ago passions
    of an evening tossing

    raspberries to the noble
    and cream to poor folk.

  4. Kathryn Neel says:

    Maureen,

    Did you know the center of the universe tastes of raspberries? This is a scientific fact, no joke. :)

  5. Laura Brown says:

    Now, where is my Everyman’s Library anthology of food poetry?

    That photo makes me salivate.

  6. Darlene says:

    As always a delightful read and in this case a most interesting recipe.

  7. Marcy Terwilliger says:

    Love, Love, Loved it. I’m Scot/Irish so your words, the sounds of them gave a tug to my heart. Many Grandparents have lived & are buried in that beautiful land.
    This year 4 Christmas gifts I made 7 dozen Raspberry Cupcakes with Champagne Buttercream Frosting. They were 2 die for & were delivered to all my doctors, PA’S, Nurses, while the rest went to neighbor’s & people who service us on a daily basic.
    My family comes from a long line of Chef’s, we all love to cook.

  8. Lorna Cahall says:

    Something wild and wonderful not far below the surface…it comes dancing out with the Yeats and that lovely reading.


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