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.
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.
Sweet Wine Syllabub
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.
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