Imbolc is a festival very closely tied to agriculture. As people moved away from the land, from being one of the key events of the year, it fell into obscurity. Six weeks after the Winter Solstice, in the first few days of February, Imbolc celebrates the beginning of Spring. From the perspective of a high-rise window, this may not be obvious. Down at ground level though, green shoots are appearing, buds are swelling. Even in the city, the days are clearly longer.
As lambs arrived in the pastures, so did a new supply of milk for hungry stone age farmers. After months of living on preserved food, with little access to sunlight, this source of vitamin D was essential for health. Imbolc customs often involved milk. The name itself may come from ‘oimelc’, an old word for ‘ewe’s milk’.
The winter was over in the minds of these early farmers. Whatever the weather, their thoughts had to turn to mending fences, digging the vegetable plots, putting plans into action. There was much activity around holy wells during Imbolc; weather oracles were anxiously consulted. The American tradition of Groundhog Day on February 2nd has its roots here; once it was a badger who popped out to test the air.
In the evening there would be a modest fire ritual. Great bonfires and loud parties weren’t appropriate. Survival was still not certain, but depended on the coming season’s crops. Candles were lit; it was a festival of hearth and home. Women encouraged the goddess of growing things to visit, sometimes by making a special bed for her.
An element of ritual cleansing also goes back a long way. It survives in the tradition of ‘spring cleaning’, but may once have been far more important. Some stone circles are directed at the Imbolc sunrise, notably at Newgrange in Eire. The inner chamber of the Mound of the Hostages there shows such an alignment.
Although we don’t know how these Neolithic people celebrated, we can imagine how they must have looked forward to the coming of Spring!
It might seem odd to be talking about greenhouses in February, but this is when they’re most useful. Many of your ordinary vegetables can get a head start, protected from cold soil and freezing winds. The trailing exotics of summer are just a bonus! As for fresh greens, I’m not talking about Iceberg lettuce here, but wild garlic, sorrels and nettles. These start showing just as the root vegetables which kept you going through the dark months are sprouting.
For each month in ‘Recipes’ I provide a short list of seasonal foods. You need to know these to plan your stores. After Imbolc, one can expect to have eggs and milk again, so I’ve gone into a little bit of detail about our historic relationship with milk. This shouldn’t be underestimated; it’s shaped the rural landscape of Britain for thousands of years!
Finally for each month there are the recipes, all relentlessly seasonal. See how much food you haven’t got at this time of year! Leaf through the contents of your copy and see how the available ingredients expand as the weather warms up. There’s over 130 recipes, many of which are directly related to the food you can grow, or which will be in season and cheap.
For resilience tips about other essential resources, consult ‘The Handbook of Practical Resilience – How to Survive in the 21st Century’