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A primeval gathering

"Spring is beautiful, and summer is perfect for vacations, but autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves." Margaret Elizabeth Sangster

Since we are now allowed to meet in groups of ten with appropriate social distancing, our local wine group met last night outside what our hosting neighbour called a fire pit, but which I would call a brazier, at the top of his drive. It was very cold, but as you can see everybody rugged up and they were there for a good couple of hours, drinking, eating - yes I made those quince paste tartlets and somebody else brought sausage rolls - generally being convivial. And its a goodly fire which would also have helped with the heat. Though an open fire can have the effect of warming your front, whilst your back is still cold and exposed to the dark and the wind.

David took this photo and it struck me how very archetypal it was. And probably really appropriate that in, what sometimes seems like the end of days we should resort to something so ancient - gathering around a fire with food and drink.

And I mean ancient - like when men first discovered fire - pre homo sapiens in fact. Roasting meat on a fire would have been one of the first kinds of cooking. And for possibly millions of years (I'm sorry I'm not quite sure how long this period went on), hundreds of thousands anyway surely - the campfire was the only source of heat for cooking food, be it over or in front of it, or in the embers.

Obviously part of last night's urge to gather around the fire was to do with our semi release from captivity as it were, but also something to do with it being autumn. The leaves fall and in England anyway where the trees are mostly deciduous there are so many leaves that many are burnt. Here we gather the fallen debris from the trees and light bonfires. We have a big burn off to celebrate that fact that we now can without danger of starting a massive bushfire.

It's sort of sad, but sort of not, is it not that we cannot seem to shake off our primitive past? Released from captivity on a cold night we cluster around the warmth of the fire, share stories, eat and drink. It was ever thus.

I grew up in England where, of course, we had bonfires on November 5th. The fireworks were sort of an extra - the real thing was the bonfire and burning the guy. In our house we used to wrap potatoes in foil and cook them in the bottom of the fire. They were delicious in spite of the often charred skin on the outside. But Guy Fawkes Night/Bonfire Night is, of course, also Halloween (we didn't know about Halloween back then), which is really a version All Saints Night, which is a version of the ancient pagan festival of Samhain.

"Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed." Wikipedia

It's almost winter, almost the end of winter and the dark is coming. The fires were lit to protect from the dark and to propitiate the spirits who broke through the boundary between their world and our world at this time of year and so that the cattle and the people would be protected during the winter. For Samhain was the time when the cattle were brought in from their winter pastures. The souls of the dead as well as the spirits, the witches, the gods, also visited. And this got translated into All Saints Night, and thence to Halloween, and then Guy Fawkes night. These days perhaps it's back to Halloween.

In Lewes in Sussex, bonfire night is a huge thing. Lewes is on the Downs and there is a chain of hills on which bonfires are lit - well this is another ancient use of bonfires is it not? As a warning of advancing armies or maybe an all clear. So on Bonfire night huge bonfires are lit, there are fiery processions and fireworks. A somewhat pagan mix of celebration, fun and threat. And I'm sure there is food galore.

Then at the beginning of May there were more bonfires at Beltane, which people danced around and occasionally over. I think this was something to do with fertility and also to celebrate taking the cattle back to their summer pastures. This time I'm guessing the spirits were being thanked. These days I don't think there are so many bonfires on May Day - but the dancing continues around the maypole.

But going back to Samhain, apparently people also used to go round to houses and perform songs and stories for which they were paid in food. Sound familiar?

Like I said we don't seem to be able to get away from our primitive past - which is rather sad because our primitive past was frequently violent. Those bonfires were most likely used for sacrifice too, and some of the stories told around the fire were most likely ghost and horror stories. For around the bonfire is the dark and:

"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed." Terence McKenna

It was the dark they were trying to fend off.

Here in Australia there is not a big bonfire festival at all. Fire itself is the evil in Australia, However, the bush campfire is sacrosanct. And I guess last night's gathering was really more like this - a miniature, tame, version of crowds gathering around huge bonfires in both fear and celebration. Indeed more like the primeval versions where the tribe sat each night around the fire, ate the day's harvest, gossiped and told tales.

Campfires though are not just for stories and songs - although if you read the Americans on the subject you might well think that that was what they were for. No here in Australia it's all about food - damper, toasted marshmallows, baked potatoes and fish.

Simple is probably easiest - meat on a spit, fish on a rack somehow suspended over the fire, damper in a pot or on a stick and soup.

"An open fire is best so long as you take good supply of tinfoil with you - eating charcoal is not fun. Jacket spuds in first, then come corn on the cob, then hopefully some fresh fish that some kind soul has caught and some brave soul has gutted. The corn and the fish just need a bit of butter or spread inside the foil with them; for the spuds the butter comes after. Delicious." Mrs. Elaine Lane

This advice came from The Guardian which had a whole article entitled Your top campfire cooking tips which consisted of a long list of recipes and tips from Guardian readers, much of it for rather more sophisticated dishes than potatoes wrapped in foil. Like risotto, paella, pasta and pizza ...

Last night's gathering was less ambitious - it included a bag of chips.


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