11 January: Plough Monday

Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany; it marks the beginning of the period which will lead to the next harvest. The plough boys would pull a ‘fool plough’ and go round the streets dancing and performing and householders would give them money and food. Here’s what a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society had to say about the tradition as carried out in East Yorkshire.

‘Early in January we have the ‘Fond- pleeaf’ or ‘Ploo-lads’ round. This fond-pleeaf is a plough from which the share has been removed. It is dragged by the ploo-lads – fantastically dressed farming lads. The chief character is one ‘Besom Bet’. Before each house a rude dance is performed, accompanied by music and seasoned with rustic jokes. The usual gifts to these mummers are cheesecakes and money. The first being collected by one of the party wearing a clean white apron and carrying a basket.’

Quoted in 'County Folk Lore of the East Riding' by Mrs Gutch pub 1911 by The Folk Lore Society)

I quite fancy myself as Besom Bet – as long as I get to wear the white apron. Anyway here’s a good excuse to make one of my favourite things – a Yorkshire Cheesecake or Curd Tart – as given to the ploo boy with the pinny.

There is a mediaeval receipt for Curd Tart in the Harleian Manuscripts (MS 4016) in the British Library. This is what it says:'Take nessh chese, and pare it clene and grind hit in a mortar small, and draw yokes and white of egges thorgh a streynour and cast there-to, and grinde hem togidre; then cast thereto Sugar, butter and salt, and put al togidre in a coffin of faire past and lete bake ynowe, and then serve it forthe.’

A few thoughts on curd cheese before we start. I’m going to make this tart with cottage cheese, but you could use ricotta, or you could make curds yourself by separating milk with Epsom Sats. My Grandmother made curd as a business – one of her farmer’s wife sidelines. She sold it to Field’s Cafes in Hull in the 1930s. You used to be able to buy curd in Hull market as recently as the 1980s, but I guess no longer. You can still buy curd tarts though in every decent bakery in Yorkshire. Here’s the recipe.

Curd Tart

You’ll need shortcrust pastry made with 8oz flour and 4oz butter. I use a metal flan dish with a loose bottom. My Grandma often used saucers. She also always used half butter and half lard in her pastry, but let’s think of our arteries. Some people bake the case blind first, I did, my Mother doesn’t.

For the filling
Two 300g cartons cottage cheese or 600g home made curd
3 oz butter melted and cooled
2oz sugar (I used soft brown)
3 beaten eggs
3 oz currants
Nutmeg for the top

Break down the cottage cheese to smaller lumps with a fork or as I did put them through a potato ricer. Mix all the filling ingredients together, adding the currants last. I sometimes add a dash of lemon juice. The mix should be grainy not smooth. Pour into the pastry case and grate nutmeg over generously.
Bake at 190c for about 30 -40 minutes until golden and slightly puffed up. Serve at room temperature with single cream or crème fraiche.

Happy Ploughing.

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