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Folklore: The sabbat of Lammas, the celebration of the grain

Marking the beginning of the harvest, Lammas is a pagan festival that is celebrated at the beginning of August

Cereal field at Lammas foraging time

It is Lammas (Lughnasadh) on 1 August, the Pagan sabbat that marks the beginning of the harvest. It is one of the eight yearly festivals that observe the equinoxes and turning points in the seasons. Lammas — derived from the Anglo-Saxon for “loaf mass” — is a “quarter day” of the calendar and celebrates the peak of summer when both flowers and crops are in abundance. It precedes Mabon, the end-of-harvest festival in late September.

The Celtic festival of Lughnasadh and Anglo-Saxon festival celebrated around the same date (also known as the feast of the first fruits) were later appropriated by the church in England, which celebrated Lammas as a harvest festival when loaves of bread made from new grain were consecrated. Within the modern Pagan and Wiccan traditions, it remains a festival of bread and grain and is celebrated with feasts and crafts, such as the making of corn dollies and baking of the figure of the god in bread.

While this year’s rains and changeable weather have left us with an unseasonably green start to the month, the yellows of grain crops are beginning to colour the landscape, and mature wild grasses are also plentiful.

The earliest evidence of using of grains to make breads dates back to the Middle East, particularly Egypt, around 8000BCE, when breads that resembled chapatis were made using a grinding tool known as a quern.

Bread-making spread as a process throughout the world, with both leavened and unleavened cultural variations. The Mexicans began stone-grinding grains for tortillas around 100BCE, while the Persians were using windmills by 600BCE. It was the Romans — naturally — who advanced the technique, inventing water-milling around 450BCE.

Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) on Rye
Ergot on Rye

The ancient art of bread-making is not only laborious but also has its pitfalls, principally ergot poisoning — a nasty illness caused by the ingestion of grains that have been infected by the ascomycete fungus Claviceps purpurea. The fungus, which particularly afflicts rye, causes healthy grains to be replaced with dark, hard ergots which risk being mixed in during harvest and milling.

Symptoms of ergot poisoning include convulsions, mania, psychosis, parenthesias, nausea and vomiting, as well as dry gangrene caused by vasoconstriction. Examples of mass poisonings pepper history, with epidemics well-documented throughout the Middle Ages, even if the true cause has only been identified in the last 200 years.

The residents of Salem ate a rye-based diet, and ergot poisoning has been implicated in the hysteria that led to the Salem witch trials of 1692. Ergot has also been fingered in the “Great Fear” which sparked the French Revolution in 1789, a year when grain harvests were particularly poor.

Modern foragers tempted to make use of wild grains to make breads face the same problems as their ancestors, and true foraged breads remain a pursuit for the extremely dedicated. There are some seeds that are resistant to ergot, such as pendulous sedge (Carex pendula), that can be used to make breads but having to find sufficient quantities, as well as go through the laborious threshing, winnowing, and milling processes, is likely to be a deterrent to most.

There are other plants whose seeds can be used to make wild flours, including dock, although this can be tough and bitter. A little later in the year, however, acorn and chestnut flours become a possibility.

Of more appeal at this time of year is the use of wild seeds to enhance bread-making and one of the most easily accessed in August is nettle seed, which can add some interest and texture to breads. There are a variety of wild seeds than can also be used to top a loaf, which works particularly well with sourdoughs and increases the flavour punch of the seeds. These include amaranth, poppy and wild oats.

Try our nettle seed and dandelion honey Lammas bread recipe, which combines the subtle hay-like flavours of the foraged syrup with the nutty zing of nettle seed to celebrate the season.

Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!


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