Yesterday was Candlemas alias küünlapäev. For the old Estonians, küünlapäev marked the midpoint of cold harsh winter, the day when winter's backbone was broken, its heart was crushed. Candlemas was also considered to be a good day for making candles - apparently these would burn extra brightly then.. Substinence wise, half of the human and animal food was supposed to be left on this day, as it was still a long time before the fields would yield any food again.
Well, winters are considerably milder these days (although it was minus 30˚C in Estonia just a few weeks ago, but this is increasingly rare). And there is no need to ration your food so that at least half of the meat and grain would still be in storage on February 2nd - you can always pop into the supermarket. But this doesn't mean that you can't eat the traditional foods on that day - pork hocks, head or side, barley porridge, red beer and liqueurs. During the 20th century, red berries and fruit were added to the list of required foods of the day. I decided to skip the pork hocks and head, but made the other traditional dish of the day - barley porridge.
Most importantly, küünlapäev was a festive day for the women. This was the day when the rough Estonian peasant men were stuck in the kitchen and farm, doing the women's work. The women went to visit each other and then for a drink in a pub - kõrts. Not exactly a full-blown emancipation of women, but heading on that direction. You see, it was important to consume some red wine or liqueur on that day, so the women would have lovely - and healthy - rosy cheeks for the rest of the year.
A very simple barley porridge
200 grams pearl barley
25-30 grams of butter
600 ml meat or chicken stock
Wash the barley groats with hot water, drain thoroughly.
Heat the butter in a heavy saucepan, add pearl barley and sauté for a few minutes.
Add the hot stock, season with salt and stir gently.
Cover the pan with a lid and simmer on a medium low heat for about 30-40 minutes, until barley has swollen and is 'al dente' or almost soft, with a bit of bite. You can also bake the porridge in the oven.
75 grams cubed pancetta
2-3 small shallots
Slice the onion very thinly. Heat a non-stick pan on a medium heat and dry-fry the pancetta cubes until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon, add a splash of oil to the pan, if necessary, and reduce the heat to minimum.
Add sliced onion and fry very slowly until golden and caramelised (about 20-30 minutes).
There was also a small bowl of sliced salted cucumbers on the table, as well as some sour cream.
If you're brave and adventurous enough, then the porridge is best served with some soured milk, like kefir or buttermilk. We had the latter, courtesy of the recently opened Polish deli nearby.
Although extremely humble and cheap, the barley porridge is actually very nice. The groats have a nice crunchy bite to them, and the fried pancetta and caramelised onions add slight sophistication.
A simple cherry and chocolate tart
As for the red berries, I served these in the form of cherries:) I tried a simple version of the Black Forest Cake, recipe courtesy of Jamie Oliver. But as the Estonian forests would have all still be covered in snow in early February, I made a white forest cake instead*.
A small loaf cake, sliced lenghtwise into 2 or 3
A tub of whipping or double cream
A dash of kirsch
A can of pitted cherries
A zest of one orange
Slice the loaf cake lengthwise into 2 or 3 layers, depending on the size. Lay onto a serving tray.
Drain the cherries slightly, add the kirsch and let the flavours mingle for a few minutes.
Whip the double cream until soft peaks form, add most of the orange zest.
Drizzle the boozy liquid from the cherries onto the cake base.
Cover with orange zest flavoured whipped cream. Cover with cherries, sprinkle with some orange zest and grated chocolate.
And to drink - a bottle of red wine. We don't usually drink much alcohol, but there were three Estonian girls around the table last night and we were just trying to follow old Estonian customs:)
* The 'black forest' cake was replaced with a 'white forest' cake mainly because I couldn't find a chocolate loaf cake in any of the shops on the way from work to home. Yes, I know that a true foodie would bake their own loaf cakes - and usually I would - but I had about an hour to prepare the porridge and the cake, so couldn't make it last night.