I grew up in an area where apple orchards were easy to find. Late August, September and October were beautiful months where the various fruits and other crops ripened and were gathered, leaves changed and hayrides were the order of the day. I remember riding with groups of friends in wagons filled with hay that were pulled by horses or tractors. These were usually late afternoon or evening events and frequently ended with bonfires where marshmallows were roasted, apples crunched and apple cider was drunk. Although not a traditional harvest celebration, it’s easy to see these activities as a continuation of harvest celebrations in general.
The blessing of a good harvest has been celebrated for thousands of years by all cultures. Pagan rites were adapted into Christian celebrations. In England, Lammas was celebrated on August 1 to celebrate the wheat harvest. (“Lammas” comes from the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas which means “loaf mass”.) It was also known as the Feast of First Fruits. The English Catholic Church celebrated this until Henry VIII separated the Church from Rome. The harvest festival evolved to a local tradition, celebrated with local customs, and not necessarily on an annual basis. Even the date could vary, with the traditional August 1, Michaelmas (September 29), or the harvest moon (falling in September or Oct, depending on the year) all as possibilities. Whenever the celebration fell, it was a time of feasting on foods in season, in appreciation for a time of plenty. One fairly common tradition was the Harvest Cake, which was distributed to farm workers after the harvest was done.
I looked for recipes for a traditional English harvest cake that might have been available during the Georgian era. To my surprise, instead of heavy cakes loaded with apples, nuts and cinnamon, I found that seed cakes were popular. Made with caraway seeds, these seeds were symbolic of the wheat harvest. I found two recipes for seed cake in The Compleat HOUSEWIFE by Eliza Smith (my copy is a facsimile of the 16th edition which was first published in 1758). Although not specifically designated a harvest cake, it is easy to see that it would serve a large group. The recipe for “A good Seed-Cake” includes 5 pounds of flour, 4 pounds of sugar, 4 pounds of butter, a pound and a half of caraway comfits (candy-coated caraway seeds, about the size of a grain of rice), a half-pound of candied orange peel and a half-pound of citron. When mixed and put in the “hoop”, it was baked in a quick oven for 2 to 3 hours. This would yield a big cake! I can see that a few cakes like this would serve a lot of people, especially as part of a feast. (It’s interesting to note that caraway comfits were popular in Elizabethan time as a digestif, the anise-flavored seed being recognized as beneficial for indigestion and flatulence.)
As summer ends and autumn draws in, I think it is almost instinctive to think of the seasonal foods: apples, root vegetables, heartier dishes, and desserts to match. Last year at Christmas, I baked my first fruitcake and plan to do another this year. Maybe this year, for Thanksgiving, I will try a seed cake with plenty of caraway seeds. There is something so satisfying about bring old customs into my modern celebrations.