A Regency Michaelmas
Most of us have heard of Michaelmas – perhaps like me your first time was hearing Mrs. Bennet mention it in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, "He will be in possession by Michaelmas, and he has five thousand a year!" – but what is it, when is it, and how was it celebrated in Jane Austen's time?
From the similarity of its name to Christmas you might have guessed that it is rather like a holiday, and you would be right. It originated as a feast day to celebrate the victory of Michael the archangel over Satan mentioned in the Bible, and it coincided with a "quarter-day" or the day when that quarter's rents were due, which was September 29. In England it is still sometimes celebrated with a special meal, as it has been since the days of Ethelred in the 9th century.
The central dish on the table always belonged to a goose because at the end of the harvest geese were fattened up by feeding on the stubble in the fields, and, since rent was also due for many farmers, a goose would be offered as a part of their payment. Farmers also sold these "green geese" at fairs during this time of year because they were ready to be eaten. In some parts of England if people could dine on a goose they might say, "If you eat roast goose on Michaelmas day, you will never want money all year." This would illumine a small tongue-in-cheek remark that Jane herself made in a letter to her sister in 1812:
I dined upon goose yesterday, which, I hope, will secure a good sale of my second edition.
Jane's father George Austen was a farmer as well as a clergyman so we can imagine that the Austen family always celebrated Michaelmas by eating a goose of their own.
During the Regency a Michaelmas goose would have been accompanied by an onion gravy. An onion and a turnip slice were boiled in a mixture of milk and water, then mashed together with butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Many Michaelmas recipes that have been passed down include late summer and early autumn fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots, onions and especially blackberries. Somehow a story got started that when Satan was cast out of heaven he fell onto a blackberry bush, cursing the fruit by scorching it with his breath, which was supposed to explain why blackberries begin to shrivel and mold after Michaelmas. Hence, the abundance of delicious blackberry recipes like pies, dumplings and tarts to use them up!
Here is a menu for you to plan a Michaelmas feast of your own!