In which we discover that a good heart is a very vauable commodity, the loss of a vine that provides excellent unlimited free wine can cause distress and that sometimes there is more than one beautiful maiden in a story but sometimes she’s just a fox.
So what did you think? I loved this story. I loved that the character that helped our hero was a woman and he didn’t marry her! He helped her and she returned the favour many times over and then got to carry on with her life. Our hero married the person he fell in love with, not through obligation for her assistance. I also like stories when the outcome is better for those characters who are kind. I also like it when they are kind and clever but in this instance kind and brave will have to do.
Bravery & Patience
He demonstrated his bravery by standing up to his father who valued him for it (this would have been the opposite if she’d been a daughter we imagine) One thing is certain, you certainly can’t warm to our hero for his ability to carry out instructions. The fox is extremely patient, one of the reasons for this becoming clear right at the end of the story. She needs him to release her from the curse.
There are several translations of this Serbian tale, and one is even a translation from the French translation (Andrew Lang’s Grey Fairy Book). It also appears in famous collections from the region in its original language. This tale is an ATU tale type 550 – Bird, Horse and Princess and there are many variations. Don’t you just love the specificity of the title?
The most famous variation is Germany’s The Golden Bird but the one I had encountered previously is a Russian tale – Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf. I have to admit that I got much more frustrated with Prince Ivan than I did with our hero. To the extent, that I don’t think I could have made this episode if that had been the story. You can’t tell a tale well if you are that annoyed with the hero.
Grapevine, Apple Tree, Horse and Princess
Once I started researching this tale, I found a very similar one from Hungary called The Wonderful Grapevine (A csodás szőlőtő) where three princes ask their father, the king, why one of his eyes laughs while the other cries. This prompts a quest for the king’s lost grapevine and, later, for a horse and a princess. The wondrous apple tree does seem to be specific to our version of the tale. Some of the other more well known versions are The Phoenix Bird, the Water of Life and the Most beautiful Flower from Austria, The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird from Sicily, About the Prince and his Friend, the Raven from Poland and World Below from Armenia. There are also Greek, African, Israeli, Celtic, English, Mexican variations. Aren’t the names just wonderful?
A Christening Late in Life
In the original tale I read our hero did not have a name but for ease of retelling I provided him with one. You have no idea how difficult it is to tell a tale without one. In the original Stefan is portrayed as a fool because he was kind and a little slow of thought and good at working on the farm. When this tale was told, the rural audience would have been likely to enjoy a tale where the hero actually won the day because of these qualities. It is noticeable also that he didn’t leave the farm but stayed with his father and new wife rather than leaving with her for a more luxurious home and lands.
How Many Mothers?
The other fascinating thing for me was that there was not one, but two, evil, magically powerful mothers who cursed their daughters this tale. I suppose its not possible they were the same woman and the maidens were sisters? This complete fabrication on my part, it just seems unusual to have two mothers that cursed their daughters in the same story. Whilst I’m here I have to admit to changing the golden cradle to a golden casket. It just didn’t make sense to me why an adult woman would still have her own cradle unless it was for her future children I suppose. Anyway I changed it, so please forgive me any Serbian listeners.
This tale is brimming over with folkloric and fairy tale tropes, we have the three brothers, the quest to help their father, helping a vulnerable creature to gain help on a quest, a golden princess, a golden horse, a golden apple tree. One thing that jars though is that the original item, the magical grape vine, makes the total number of magical items total four which as we all know is not a magic number! I suppose the golden princess is a person rather than an item but she is less likely to have been considered so at the time.
Another thing that I found interesting is that the magic item is actually a vine that produces wine rather than a magically refilling jug, such as I’ve read in other tales or a magic stone which is placed in a jug. It also must have been absolutely wonderful wine. Imagine weeping out of one eye until death because you are so upset about losing it. 24 buckets of wine in 24 hours is a lot of wine though, even if you really like it. I did think that you’d have to replace the buckets pretty quickly to avoid very soggy ground around the vine.
No Magic Buckets
However I’m prepared to accept that my brain does not work exactly in the same way as a lot of other peoples who would just accept the magical vine in its entirety without any practical considerations. I just think if you are going to go around providing people with magic vines, it would only be considerate to provide a magical storage vessel for the amazingly good wine as well.
Theres more folklore about wine than you might think. Did you know that a woman invented wine according to Persian legend? Yes really, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, there is a tale about a storage jar of grapes going frothy and the King ordering it to be put aside as a poison. One of the court ladies suffered from horrifically painful migraines and in the midst of a killer episode decided that death would be better than the pain so drank from the supposedly poisonous vessel. However it wasn’t poison, but fermented grape juice which relaxed her and put her at ease, resulting in a peaceful sleep without pain. And so wine was born although most wine drinkers would suggest it causes more head pain than it cures.
Goddesses of Wine
Actually most goddesses of wine were female, the first mention of one was in what is now Iraq, around 3000 BCE. The Egyptians, Sumerians, and the peoples of the Indus Valley all had wine goddesses, since feminine deities tended to be linked with agriculture and fertility. The Egyptians also had a wine god, Osiris, who was also the god of the underworld. He taught humans how to grow grapes and make wine together with the goddess Isis who happened also to be his wife. Obviously both the Greek and Roman gods of wine were well, gods, which has means that for most people nowadays, the deities associated with wine are more masculine in energy.
Big Goat Energy
Did you know that it was also believed that wine was invented on the ark, yes that ark, the one with Noah. Legend says there was a goat who managed to get access to the ark’s store of grapes and general hilarity ensued. Noah was then inspired to do some grape based experiments to see how this behaviour could be recreated. No-one knows why you would want to drink something that made you behave like a badly behaved goat but I suppose he had a lot of time on his hands during the flood.
Anyway when he hit land he decided to continue with his wine-making experiments on Mount Ararat which is known even today for the quality of its grapes. The country of Armenia does indeed have a long history of wine-making and is the site of the one of the oldest known wineries which dates back to 4100 BCE.
Hand out the Wine, End the Siege
Wine folklore has even ended sieges: apparently during the 1550s the Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent prepared his siege of Eger Castle in the Beech Mountains of northern Hungary. The fortress was defended by two thousand soldiers and civilians led by Captain István Dobó. Miraculously, the Hungarians held their stations despite several weeks of repeated attacks on their walls. It was during this onslaught that Dobó authorised rations of red wine to maintain the strength and morale of the defenders. The story goes that wine streamed down the thirsty soldiers’ beards and armour, the enemy saw this and believed that the Hungarians were drinking bull’s blood to give them superhuman strength. As a result, the Turks withdrew from the Eger fortress and the siege was over.
The Romans believed that spilling wine inadvertently was an omen of disaster. When wine fell to the ground or on a table, bad things – a storm, a plague or defeat in battle, would be bound to happen. Lots of vineyards and wine makers are superstitious about their harvests and look out for omens ill or otherwise.
In Varnhalt, a town near Baden in southwest Germany, a tradition that has been carried down by generations of wine makers, is that the last grape harvest of the growing season must be brought home in a cart pulled by an ox. If it is brought home in any other manner, the grape harvest will be filled with sour grapes, producing undrinkable wine. Germans were also said to believe that when someone died, the wine in the cellar must be shaken nearly immediately. If it wasn’t shaken, the wine stored would all turn sour. Imagine if you had some really good port just ready to pour, you’d be miffed. Or at least your ghost would be.
Toasts, Glasses and Terrible Pubs
One last bit of wine folklore before we move to some history: there is a suggestion that a toast was originally a deft move to splash just a small amount of wine into each other’s cup to ensure that neither was being poisoned and so was, quite literally, a wish for health! I assume they weren’t doing this with the best crystal or even the good supermarket wine glasses, although I have had wine served in a pub in a glass that could probably take the force.
Although in that case the wine was more likely to have poisoned you on its own. I’m far from a wine snob but I would suggest that you never drink wine in a pub when the choice is red, white or pink. I don’t think the pink was actually rosé I think it might have a been a mix of the red and white to see what happened.
A Brief History of Wine
I am going to give you a brief history of wine in Europe (well grape wine) in under a paragraph. Its very old, ridiculously so. There is evidence to demonstrate that wine was present in storage jars in what is now Iran which dates back to 5000BCE The thing is that wine very much makes itself. The yeasts present on the skin of the grapes mix with the sugars present in the grape juice to cause fermentation everything else just refines the process and how long it can be kept without being/going sour.
It is believed that vines spread with travellers from the Transcaucasus across to the mediterranean where they thrived. Then essentially the Greeks got better at making it and thus it spread to Rome and then the Romans took the vines and the secret of wine everywhere they went. It was essentially a reward for behaving in a civilised fashion after they had taken over your country. Vines grow pretty easily you see. Oh and after the Romans disappeared the Christian church had a vested interest in keeping wine making going, so here we are.
You might also ask why Serbia would have a tale in which vines are so important, it doesn’t immediately come to mind as a country with a strong wine culture, not like the countries around the mediterranean. There is an amazing article by David Sutton from the Oxford Food Symposium called Lines in the Landscape: How the Olive-Line, the Date-Line, and the Vine-Line Have Defined Mediterranean Culture.
I’d advise you to track it down and read it but essentially he discusses how if you draw lines across Europe at the northern point where those crops grow you can see the influence of those crops and what the peoples who use those crops have in common. Those areas that we consider to have a very broad shared mediterranean culture are both below the olive line and below the wine line.
Above the Olive Line
Once you move above the olive line though you have a collection of countries including Serbia with a different food culture, inspired by different crops and the common influences of surrounding Balkan countries countries and the Hapsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. This food culture equally is demonstrably not that of the northern countries above the wine line and was supported by a strong wine culture. Communism had a big impact on the wines of Serbia as it did on the countries around it. They produced large volumes of wine but this was under state control and was not of the best quality. This is now gradually changing back to increasing numbers of smaller, good quality wine producers as it would have been historically.
Cooking with Wine
So cooking with wine, how long has it been going on? We don’t really know but probably a long time. It is perhaps more likely that more refined cooking with wine, with reduced sauces etc was the cooking of the wealthy but that of wine added to long-cooked casseroles was broadly the cooking of the rural working classes. Wine adds flavour and helps tenderise tough meats.
Most rural families only ate meat that wasn’t pork when the animals concerned had outlived their usefulness and this did not result in tender cuts. A lot of this is supposition but it does make culinary sense in areas where wine had become fairly cheap or you made your own. Its why the working classes of Northern European countries cooked with beer instead, wine was a luxury item that you wouldn’t have wasted in food.
A Shared Love Affair of Daube
So, I’m going to share with you my favourite recipe for food cooked in wine. It isn’t mine but I don’t think Elizabeth David would mind. Its beef daube served with either the type of mashed potato where you might ask, ‘I’m sorry but could I have some more potato with my butter in this mash’ or some really good bread for mopping. I suppose I shouldn’t dictate your carb choices and and actually the leftovers work as a wonderful tagliatelle al ragu so just maybe you could serve it with pasta, even Elizabeth says so.
‘O, scent of the daubes of my childhood!Pierre Huguenin:Les Meilleures Recettes de ma Pauvre Mère, 1936
‘During the holidays, at Gemeaux, in the month of August, when we arrived in my grandmother’s dark kitchen on Sunday after Vespers, it was lit by a ray of sunshine in which the dust and the flies were dancing, and there was a sound like a little bubbling spring. It was a daube, which since midday had been murmuring gently on the stove, giving out sweet smells which brought tears to your eyes. Thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, spices, the wine of the marinade and the fumet of the meat were becoming transformed under the magic wand which is the fire, into a delicious whole, which was served about seven o’clock in the evening, so well cooked and so tender that it was carved with a spoon.’
La Daube de Boeuf Provencale
Adapted from French Provincial Cooking – Elizabeth David
2 lb of top rump of beef
6 oz of unsmoked streaky bacon or salt pork,
2 carrots, 1 tin chopped tomatoes,
2 cloves of garlic,
a bouquet of thyme, bayleaf, parsley and a little strip of orange peel,
2 tablespoons of olive oil,
a glass (4 fl. oz) of red wine,
A handful of stoned black olives
A small bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic
3 tinned anchovies, finely chopped
1 tablspoon of capers, finely chopped
- Have the meat cut into squares about the size of half a postcard and about ⅓ inch thick.
- Buy the bacon or salt pork in the piece and cut it into small cubes.
- Scrape and slice the carrots on the cross; peel and slice the onions.
- In the bottom of the pot put the olive oil then the bacon, then the vegetables
- Arrange the meat carefully on top, the slices overlapping each other.
- Bury the garlic cloves, flattened with a knife, and the bouquet, in the centre.
- With the pan uncovered start the cooking on a moderate heat on top of the stove.
- After about 10 minutes, put the wine into another saucepan; bring it to a fast boil; set light to it; rotate the pan so that the flames spread. When they have died down pour the wine bubbling over the meat. Cover the pot with greaseproof paper or foil, and a well-fitting lid.
- Transfer to a very slow oven, 140 degrees C and leave for 2½ hours, adding in the olives 30 minutes before the end.
- To serve, arrange the meat with the bacon; pour off some of the fat from the sauce, extract the bouquet, and pour the sauce round the meat.
- At the serving stage, sprinkle over a persillade of finely-chopped garlic,parsley, anchovies and capers.
- You can definitely do this in a pressure cooker or Instant Pot but will need to check timings online and add wine at the start with the rest of the ingredients. You still need to layer in the same way.
Sixty Folk-Tales from Exclusively Slavonic Sources – Albert Henry Wratislaw (London, 1889), a selection translated from Karel Jaromir Erben’s Sto prostonárodních pohádek a pověstí slovanských v nářečích původních (“One Hundred Slavic Folk Tales and Legends in Original Dialects”, 1865)
Lines in the Landscape: How the Olive-Line, the Date-Line, and the Vine-Line Have Defined Mediterranean Culture – David C. Sutton from Food and Landscape – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2017
The Origins and Ancient History of Wine – Edited by Patrick E.McGovern, Stuart J.Fleming and Solomon H.Katz
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, Volumes 1-3 edited by Donald Haase
Grey Fairy Book – Andrew Lang
The Laughing Prince: a Book of Jugoslav Fairy Tales And Folk Tales – Parker Fillimore 1921
French Provincial Cooking – Elizabeth David
Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen
Featured Image: Tolga Ahmetler via Unsplash