Why or when the Roman Catholic Church elected to honour them isn’t clear. The day fell in the middle of the feast of Lupercalia, during which Romans sacrificed a goat and a dog. They then whipped off their clothes and subsequently went about whipping women - with strips of the animals’ skins. Apparently the women lined up for this honour, believing it would make them fertile.
There was also a matchmaking lottery, with their names dropped into a receptacle for the men to draw one out. The lucky women would be paired up with them for a romp to last at least the duration of the three-day festival and for life if they had found a suitable match.
I don’t feel any of this is anything to be celebrated with chocolate.
I am going for the other and entirely opposite February event. The word February comes from ‘februum’, meaning purification, and ‘februa’, the descriptive for the various cleansing rites and instruments put into play to prepare for the coming of Spring.
Throughout the month, spelt and salt were used to clean houses. On the festival of the Lupercalia, February 15th, priests donned leaves and strips of goat skin. Thus dressed, they would streak around the sacred boundary of Rome, in this ‘februum’ version to purify the city. They too, in a playful fashion, would whip young maidens with goat hide strips along the way.
Decide for yourselves how playful an event this must have been while I deal with spelt.
Greek mythology has it that spelt was a gift from Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and at one and the same time the sister and the consort of the god of gods, Zeus. (It is amazing what behaviour the ancients considered normal.)
I have a soft spot for spelt because it’s also called dinkel wheat, which is rather charming. It’s one of the most ancient cereals, with evidence of its cultivation north east of the Black Sea going back as far as 5000BC. By 500BC, it was a common crop in southern Britain.
Recently, it has been enjoying a revival, being a cheap staple food filled with nutrients and often used in posh breads and pasta as a substitute for wheat. It’s thrumming with vitamins, nutrients and minerals.
But despite its dubious background, February is the month of romance, so probably none of this information is uplifting you. Therefore I capitulate and offer you a bundt cake for Valentine’s - or any other - Day, based on spelt but containing chocolate, though only in cocoa powder form. So you might consider drizzling some melted 70% chocolate over all instead of the icing sugar.
- 3 large eggs
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ¾ tsp hazelnut extract
- 250g/8ozs caster sugar
- 250 ml sunflower oil
- 250g/8ozs white spelt flour
- 125g/4ozs spelt wholemeal
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- 2 tbls good quality cocoa powder
- 2 tbls plain yoghurt
Preheat oven to 180C
Butter and flour a 23cm diameter, 2 litre Bundt pan.
Beat eggs, vanilla and hazelnut extract and sugar in electric mixer until tripled in volume – 4-5 minutes. Add oil slowly in a steady stream with a few pauses until it is all incorporated. The batter will be fairly thick.
Sift flours, baking powder into a large bowl. Mix thoroughly with a hand whisk. Fold into batter with a large whisk or wooden spoon.
Divide the mixture in half into another bowl. To this bowl, add the cocoa powder and the yoghurt, and fold together.
Using a tablespoon, spoon 3 tablespoons of the cocoa batter to form a triangle in the Bundt tin. Between these spoon in the plain batter. Using a knife of dessertspoon, swirl the two batters together. Repeat the process on top of this using all of both batters, and swirl again. Put in pre-heated oven on middle shelf and cook for 35 – 40 minutes. Check with a wooden skewer and if still moist, bake an extra 5 minutes maximum, but no longer to avoid drying out.
Wait 10 minutes before turning cake out onto cooling rack. Let it cool thoroughly.
When cold, dust with icing sugar.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of The Bugle.