Thursday, February 6, 2014

Celtic Food and Fairy Tales

Article by Ty Hulse

Five Celtic Fairy Tales to Inspire You

When the Celts still ruled most of Europe food was a defining part of people's culture,  more than it ever could be now. For at one time most of the population was engaged in gathering and or harvesting their own food, so the food people ate changed the way they lived, the stories they told, and what they believed about the fairies. This is nowhere better exemplified than among the Celtic peoples. Irish food, Scottish Food, and Welsh Food, among other Celtic recipes all have their own stories, their own myths told about them.

This is the first part of a series on Celtic food and how it affected their folklore, the other parts which will include fish, oats, and nutmeg will be released in the future.

Cheese, Butter and Milk
Before potatoes, or any of the modern foods; milk, cheese, curds, and butter were the most important foods to the Celts. Nearly everyone had a cow, goats, or sheep except for those so poor they were starving or those few who were rich enough to buy butter and cheese from those who did have cows. Indeed the primary food during the summer in Ireland was milk, curds, and butter. Thus, their most tragic stories are tales cattle raids, of people whose cows wander off, of evil spirits which curse cows, and of course of fairies stealing cows. In this latter case people would at times threaten war with the fairies for the theft of the cow, blood feuds were a common result. By the same token their greatest heroes were the ones who would steal cows from others, or protect, and bless their cows.

There were also those few who would share their milk and butter with the fairies and witches of the land and so be blessed because of this. In one tale, a man shares his milk with some starving fairy refugees, who then keep him safe from his landlord who tries to drive him off the land (attacking any police who come to evict him).

The importance of cows in this case is more than just fodder for stories, or an interesting footnote in the annals of a culture. Caring for a cow defines the way people live. People have to milk the cow on a schedule, limiting what they can do, and when they can do it. Cows need to be fed, even in the winter time when fodder might be hard to get a hold of, kept warm, kept safe. Think about those people who are obsessed with their car, now imagine if they would starve to death without it. More than this, imagine that the car was actually alive; and you might get some idea of what it was like to own a cow during Once Upon a Time.

One woman suffering from starvation after her cow dies, finds herself starving and in the depths of despair when the fairies appear to her and offer to make her a witch. It was fairly typical for the fairies to appear to those who were desperate, at their lowest point, and in this case the woman's lowest point was when her cow had died. This was the easiest time for the fairies to convince her to become a witch and work for them.

There are also countless ancient folk tales in which people were embarrassed that they didn't have milk to serve to their guests, as this was an important food for proper hospitality. Often magical beings such as saints would create this milk for good people so that they wouldn't be embarrassed.

Goats and Sheep were also extremely important to people's lives. Among the Welsh the Gwyllion were hags which haunted lonely roads and the mountains. Though often depicted as a fearsome monster she clearly is a remnant of something older, for she carries around a pot which is much like what people would use to collect milk. She also has a clear connection with the goats. Here also goats have a special relationship with the Tylwyth Teg (Welsh Fairies) and were often believed to be magical beings in  their own right. Indeed, dead goats could at times become fairies in the form of beautiful maidens with large brown eyes.

Among the Scottish the Glaistig, were beautiful women with a goat's legs, who like many other fairies had a dual aspect. On the one hand, they were kindly watching goat herds and children, but on the other hand, they could become a vicious vampire like monsters, sometimes seeming to change their aspect at night the way werewolves would.

Here too the herding of goats and sheep defines the way people live, because they have to move these animals out of pasture. Further, because of the danger that these animals might run away, or be attacked by wolves, people began to develop a number of ritual ideas about them. Thus, people's lives, often revolved around their cows, sheep, and goats, and the butter and cheese they provided. So the next time you drink a glass of milk, put some cheese on a sandwich, or use butter to make a soup feel a connection with the Celts of the past, whose food has evolved to give you many of these modern day treats. 

Celtic Food Recipes 
There are many recipes which can be found online, but a few interesting points include the fact that Irish butter and milk were often somewhat sour (though not always). In milk the sour flavor can be imitated to a limited extent by mixing in a bit of sour cream. Irish and European butters are available in stores, though they are pricy.

In the "Vision of MacConglinne" white porridge, made with sheep's milk is discussed as one of the greatest of foods. Indeed the boiling of barley or oats with the milk of animals was a staple food in many Celtic lands.

Others would drink Butter Milk or various other milks with their stews.

There were also a number of ways of quickly making curds. In one of these the Irish would boil their milk, then pour it into some buttermilk so that it would sour and become curds.

They also made curds a number of other ways, which can easily be found online

Welsh Rarebit (rabbit)
There are many recipes for this, but you can find at

One buttery soup recipe can be found at;

A Few Fairy Tales with cows, butter and milk

Fairy Wiles
A boy's cow is stolen by some fairies who need it for their own food.

The Great Fighting Men - Tales of Irish Gods
As to the Morrigu, the Great Queen, the Crow of Battle, where she lived after the coming of the Gael is not known, but before that time it was in Teamhair she lived. And she had a great cooking-spit there, that held three sorts of food on it at the one time: a piece of raw meat, and a piece of dressed meat, and a piece of butter. And the raw was dressed, and the dressed was not burned, and the butter did not melt, and the three together on the spit.

The Vision of MacConglinney (A vision of heaven)
"A lake of new milk I beheld
In the midst of a fair plain,
Therein a well-appointed house,
Thatched with butter.
Puddings fresh boiled,
Such were its thatch-rods,
Its two soft door posts of custard,
Its beds of glorious bacon.
Cheeses were the palisades.....

Ravens Shire is dedicated to helping writers and artists learn about the strange world of fairy tales, so if you have any questions or need any help understanding the fairy realm, please contact us.