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Sun King Soup and Buttermilk Bread - Gwendoline Coates

We have reached the deepest part of the darkness with the longest night of the year. The sun has gone down behind the cliff at two o'clock in the afternoon on this northern Shetland island. I have enough light to gather driftwood from the beach next to my house. I light two fires: one huge bonfire to keep us warm and one small fire on which to cook. From here I can see no lights at all, no other house, no boats at sea tonight. At five o'clock I see the torches before I hear the scrunch of my friends' feet across the shingle.


We are waiting for the Wheel of the Year to turn again. And while we wait, we warm ourselves with fire, and food and drink and love. I bring out the big iron pot of soup I made this morning. It needs to be sun-king-red for this Yuletide night. Further south I might have used tomatoes, maybe red peppers, but up here at the sixtieth parallel I cannot grow such things. I took carrots, potatoes and beetroot out of the tea chests where they are stored in peat dust, and pulled onions from their string. I added spices which my ancestors would not have had. And some chillies grown on the wide stone sills of my crofthouse windows and dried above the peat stove.


Now I set the pot upon the small fire, bring it back to the boil and ladle out into ten mugs. It is cold tonight, minus seven I would think. A crystal clear sky and a rare night without wind. We are on the cusp; the night when we hold our breath. The Goddess will labour all night to bring the sun into the world. We wait quietly, thinking of our friend Ulrika, who is sharing her own labour tonight. We need to be confident that all is well, but always there is anxiety until the birth is over. We speak in whispers, warming our hands on our mugs. This is a rooty, earthy soup, in this remote place where we are so close to the soil. The four elements are in balance. We taste the Earth, our feet firmly planted. We hear the sea Water crashing onto the shore, breathe the sharp lung-chilling Air of the North Atlantic coast, and turn our faces to the Fire.


We toast bread on long-handled forks and spread it with goat's cheese. I have two goats, Mona and Lisa, whose milk is sweet from wild flower hay and sharp from mischief. This cheese is just right for bringing in Capricorn. We usher him in, cautious of his horns.


Lastly we have have crescent shaped Yule Moon biscuits. They are made from beremeal, the ancient northern grain grown by the Vikings, with goat's butter and honey. The honey is precious, for bees are too easily blown away on our island of gales. Our meal is simple. It has cost nothing in terms of money. It tastes of hard work and love.


Watching the position of the Plough and the Pole Star on this cloudless night, we will be able to tell when it is midnight, but it's too cold to stay out. The midwife calls and all is progressing well. We should sleep she says. My friends bid goodnight and promise to return in the morning, if morning comes again, to break fast. In the candlelight I prepare the buttermilk bread to prove overnight.


Several times I wake, but each time it is still dark. Night time fears for two mothers in labour, praying out loud for their safe delivery. At dawn I see a faint light, but not yet enough to trust. I get up, light the lamp and the peat stove. I knock back the dough. It rises quickly the second time, warm by the stove, magically coinciding with the sun at 9.08. The sky is turning from red to orange as my friends return. We take the warm bread outside to greet the Sun on his birthday. He will look after us, and our crops and our animals for another whole year. We raise our mugs of hot tea in salute and celebrate our good fortune.


A phone call. The other child has arrived, born at dawn on December 22nd.


Photo by Robert Witański



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