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B2MeM Challenge: 2014
Trewsday, 20 Rethe, S.R. 1389
Frodo and Merry were finishing up their third helpings of second breakfast: porridge laced with cherry preserves, currant scones and sausages, when there was a tap at the back door.
"Come in!" called Bilbo, leaning back in his chair and sipping his tea.
The kitchen door opened, and little Sam peeked in shyly, before coming all the way. "Mr. Bilbo, the Gaffer sent me up to say the purslane's coming out in the Party Field."
"Why, excellent, Sam! Must you go back now that your message is delivered, or can you join us?"
"Mam said I can stay if you ask me." He smiled over at Frodo and Merry who grinned back at him, pleased that they could have young Sam's company.
But Merry looked puzzled. "Cousin Bilbo, why did you say 'excellent'? I thought purslane was a weed." He was sure he'd overheard the Brandybuck gardeners complaining about it often enough.
"In the garden beds or the lawn, it is a weed. But out in the fields it is one of many most useful plants. It's quite delicious, either cooked or in salads. Have you ever been foraging, Merry?"
He shook his head. "No." He cast a rare look of disapproval at Frodo, and said "When the cousins went to forage cattails at the River last summer, they said I was too little. They let Berilac go with them, though!"
Frodo just chuckled. "You were too little then, sprout. Your mother would never have allowed you to go. You're older now--you'll be old enough to go this summer! And I am sure you are old enough to come with us today! It's First Salad Day!"
Bilbo motioned for Sam to sit at the table and offered him a scone. "Thank you, Mr. Bilbo," he said.
"What's 'First Salad Day'?" asked Merry. This was his first spring visit to Bag End, and he was learning all sorts of new things.
Sam stopped mid-bite to stare at the Brandybuck lad in astonishment. He didn't know what First Salad Day was?
Bilbo bit back laughter at Sam's expression, and said "Here in Hobbiton it's a tradition ever since I was a young tween about Frodo's age: to celebrate the end of the Fell Winter, the first fresh salad of spring is made up of foraged greens, for in 1312 the thaw was late in coming, and so was planting. But the useful plants of wood and field were ready long before the plants in the garden, and were a welcome sight to those of us who'd been without anything green for months! As soon as someone around here spots the purslane or the sorrel or the chickweed peeking forth, the word is spread, and we have First Salad Day! Everyone takes their baskets and goes forth to gather the bounty! Then everyone in the town gathers under the Party Tree to share in what the earth has given us."
Now Merry was bouncing in excitement! This sounded like a lot of fun!
The lads quickly finished their second breakfast, and Frodo escorted Merry back to his room to get dressed while Bilbo, with little Sam's help, did the washing up. Bilbo put together a satchel with bread and cheese and pork pasties and some dried apple tarts, and a stone bottle of cold tea.
Off they went, each one of them with a large empty basket on his arm. Bilbo led them across the lane to the Party Field. There were already several families ahead of them, and Bilbo thought the pickings might be somewhat slim, but since little Merry was new to foraging, he wanted to start nearby. He led them to the far end of the field, and they found some purslane there. Bilbo allowed Merry to pick it, once he was sure the lad was familiar with it. Then they spread out a little. Sam found some chickweed and some sheep sorrel, and Frodo and Merry found dandelions.
"Just pick the ones that haven't bloomed yet, Merry. The leaves on the ones with flowers are too tough for a salad." Merry nodded.
Suddenly Sam gave an exclamation: he'd found some wild onions! Before long they'd begun to fill their baskets with other greens: wood sorrel, hawthorn leaves and wild garlic. They ventured beyond the hawthorn hedge into the lightly wooded area beyond. Bilbo found some wild violas and some dog violets. He was hoping perhaps to find some morels--it was about time for those spring mushrooms to appear, but there was no sign of any in the area they were searching.
Merry and Sam began to nibble on some of the wood sorrel, with its slightly tart taste, and Bilbo who was keeping a closer eye on the young ones than they realised, looked up at the Sun. She was an hour short of her zenith, so he proposed they stop in a small clearing, and he brought out the food.
"Tell us a story Cousin Bilbo," Merry begged, as he lay with his head on Frodo's knee, licking the dried-apple tart from his fingers.
"Yes, please, Mr. Bilbo," piped up Sam from his position leaning against Frodo's other side.
Frodo, who appeared quite content between his two younger friends, grinned. "Tell us a tale of the Fell Winter, Uncle Bilbo!" For it had not occurred to him before this day that Bilbo would remember that long ago event.
Bilbo pulled out his pipe, and settled his back against an oak tree. "Did you know that during the Fell Winter, the Brandywine River froze over, and white wolves from the northern Wilderlands found their way into the Shire?"
Three pairs of eyes widened in anticipation as all three lads nodded. That was a known fact, though none of them had heard stories about it. "Did you fight the Wolves with your sword, Cousin Bilbo?" asked Merry.
Bilbo chuckled. "No. For one thing, it would be many a year before I had a sword to fight with; for another, I was only about Frodo's age and would have been thought too young to go with the muster; finally, even had I been older I could not have gone, for in the wake of the Fell Winter came a dreadful illness that struck down young and old alike, and by the time the news of the wolves reached us, I was laid up with it and could scarcely hold my head up. However, Merry, your grandfather on your mother's side was my good friend Adalgrim, whom we all called Chop. The reason for that name does not come into this story, but Chop was among the muster called to deal with the wolves. He told me all about how he and the others, with a little help from Gandalf, drove out those wolves..."*
The story held the lads enthralled; finally Bilbo drew the tale to its conclusion. Merry was no end pleased with it, for he had never known his Took grandfather, who had died before Merry was even a year old.
"I think," said Bilbo, "that we need to go back up the Hill now, and get these greens taken care of while they are still fresh!"
Merry and Sam decided to race, while Frodo and Bilbo took a more leisurely pace. When the two of them reached the gate, the young ones were puffing and blowing as they leaned against the fence. "I won, Frodo!" Merry exclaimed.
Bilbo glanced at Sam, surprised, for from what he had seen from afar the older lad had been well ahead of Merry. Sam went red in the face and looked down at his toes. Ah, thought Bilbo, he let Merry win. He ruffled Sam's curls and passed through the gate. Frodo took Merry by the hand and glanced down at Sam and winked. Sam went even redder, if it were possible.
In the kitchen, Bilbo went to the pump and began to fill the sink to rinse the greens and Frodo got out clean dish towels to blot them dry. Merry and Sam helped with the drying. The lads were especially careful with the flowers, so as not to crush them.
"Get the big bowl from the top shelf of the larder, please, Frodo. You know which one."
Frodo nodded and brought out a massive wooden bowl of polished walnut. Bilbo put the greens in the bowl and carefully sprinkled the flowers on top, and then covered the salad over with another slightly damp clean dish towel. Then the lads were sent to take it down to the cold cellar. "Fetch me the apple cider while you are down there," Bilbo added.
While they were gone, Bilbo went to the cupboard and fetched out two cruets, one of apple cider vinegar and another of walnut oil. He also pulled a garlic bulb from the string of garlic hanging from the ceiling and the salt and pepper. When they came back with the cider, Bilbo greeted them with a grin. "Now to whisk up my mother's favorite spring salad dressing! While I do that, you lads find yourselves some lunch!"
Frodo knew just what to do and found just what was needed in the larder, and soon he'd sliced up some cold ham and brown bread and brought out some butter and some pickles and some eggs Bilbo had boiled that morning.
After they had eaten, Bilbo retired to his study to do some writing. Sam returned home, for he knew his mother would need his help as the Gamgees made their own preparations for the feast. Frodo tried to interest Merry in a game of draughts, but Merry was too excited to settle down to it, so the two of them returned to the Party Field. Frodo helped the hobbits there to set up the big trestle tables while Merry fetched and carried and brought dippers of water to the workers.
As time for the feast drew near, Frodo took Merry back up to the smial so that they could clean up and change clothes, and so that Frodo could remind Bilbo of the time.
Soon enough, with the lads freshly scrubbed, the three headed back down to the Party Field. Frodo carried in his arms the huge bowl of salad which Bilbo had tossed with the dressing he had made and had sprinkled with crumbles of fresh and salty goat's milk cheese. There were many other bowls of salads there, no two alike. There were also dishes of stewed greens, and platters of fish freshly caught in the Water, perch and bream and trout, roasted to perfection. Loaves of brown bread made with the last of the winter grain filled baskets, as did oat bannocks baked in embers. There was a great dish of wild asparagus, and another of morels which had been fried up with wild garlic and onion.
The hobbits filled their plates and filled their bellies, enjoying the bounty that nature had provided, and as the food vanished from the tables, there was music and dancing and the children raced about the field until the stars were all a-light and the Moon rode high.
* The story of how the hobbits drove away the wolves can be found in Chapters 16 and 17, "Beware the Wolf in Darkness Born" parts 1 and 2, of my story Eleventy-one">http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterlistview.asp?SID=7007">Eleventy-one: Too Short a Time, Book One.
Author's Note on the Recipe: I confess I have not personally tried the wild salad (though as a child I used to nibble on wood sorrel all the time), but all the plants mentioned I have researched. If you can find them in a place where there is no pollution and no pesticides, you may want to try them. There are some excellent books and online guides to foraging, some of which I will list below, as I used them to write this story.
But you can make a great salad with bagged spring mix and baby spinach, or with baby greens from the garden. Sprinkle with a little feta cheese, and dress it with this:
Bilbo's Apple-Honey Dressing
1/3 c. apple cider or apple juice
1/2 c. salad oil (I specified walnut oil, as I thought that might be something available in the Shire, but any light salad oil would do.)
Whisk together the cider or juice, the vinegar, the honey, the garlic and the seasonings. Continuing to whisk, slowly pour in the oil, and whisk until well-blended. Store in a salad cruet, and shake before using if it has settled. Keep leftover dressing in the refrigerator.
(Makes about 1 cup of dressing.)
The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes
How to Forage for a 'Spring Tonic' Salad: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ethicallivingblog/2009/apr/01/seasonal-salad-foraging-spring
Paul Kirtley's Blog:
Eat the Weeds by Greene Dean:
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