My grandmother, who came from Lewes, in Sussex, spent the last twenty years of her life back in the town of her birth, living next door to my parents. She had a cleaner called Funnel, an old bloke whose life was evidently a total misery, partly at least because of a long-running feud with a man called Penfold, who had a dodgy ‘antiques’ business in the town. The nature of the feud was mysterious, but unquestionably firework-related. Penfold was a member of the Cliffe Bonfire Society, one of many such societies in Lewes. The Cliffe Bonfire Society was full of swagger. They were (and still are) the José Mourinhos of the Lewes firework scene. Their firework display was easily the best in town. Their guy was always spectacular, a figure of public hate – Margaret Thatcher, Osama bin Laden, Chris Woodhead (yes really) - made into a huge flammable sculpture, itself full of fireworks. And they put on a range of extra attractions: for example, someone would dress as the Pope and others as Cardinals; the Cardinals would try to set the Pope’s robes alight by throwing burning torches at him. Exciting. Funnel was in the Corporation Bonfire Society, worthy but dull. The trouble was, Funnel had let this rivalry affect his entire being. He was in a permanent state of febrile misery, which would grow and become more twisted as Bonfire Night approached each year. ‘What that man Penfold knows about fireworks could be written on a postage stamp’ was a litany of his. It was difficult not to think: that’s probably true of 99% of the population.
The rivalry of Funnel and Penfold was indicative of the intense seriousness of Lewes Bonfire Night. A game, and more than a game. A ferocious, feral anti-Catholic fiesta. The normal Guy Fawkes shenanigans had been subsumed into a commemoration of the Lewes Martyrs, Protestants who had been burnt at the stake in the Marian persecutions of 1555-1557. The result was an unusually elaborate event: a huge carnivalesque procession through the town, followed by a display and bonfire mounted by each of the bonfire societies. The procession was more like a meeting of the Klu Klux Klan than an event in a precious town in the Home Counties. Everything on fire. Burning torches. Burning effigies on carts. Barrels of burning tar rolled down the very steep high street. Health and Safety would, amazingly, sit on their hands. My grandmother’s aunt, who lived in a house on the high street, was a high-church Anglican. Because of the (understandable) lack of genuine Catholics in the town, she was chosen to be burnt in effigy every year. The cart would come rattling past her front door, and she would simply close her curtains and retire to the parlour at the back of the house.
My grandmother and my parents were scarcely less disdainful of the event, and would stay resolutely at home, their only concession being to cook sausages on a barbecue, apparently a Bonfire Night tradition, after which I’d go out and wander round the town in a state of agreeable terror.
A barbecue is surely right for Bonfire Night, despite the time of year. And, considering the strange nature of the event – the commemoration of a failure - the most appropriate dish is, perhaps, a random piece of meat, smothered in HP Sauce (HP = House of Parliament, geddit?), and incinerated. If on the other hand you want to eat something, here’s a possibility:
A Lamb Barbecue (serves 8)
Light a barbecue. Pray for the rain to hold off. You’ll need a boned, butterflied leg of lamb. I’ve never bothered with marinades for barbecued meat. Surely the point is the flavour of the smoke? So I usually just season it before cooking. It’ll take about 35 minutes to cook. When it’s cooked, put it on a heated serving plate, leave it for a few minutes, so that some of the juices come out, and squeeze over a couple of lemons before carving it.
To accompany it:
Wrap medium-sized potatoes carefully in foil and bury them into the embers at the same time as you begin to cook the meat.
Serve with a chicory salad.
4 heads chicory
20ml white wine vinegar
120 ml olive oil
1 tsp mustard
at least 8 chopped anchovy fillets
at least 1 tbsp small capers
3 tbsp chopped parsley
Divide up the chicory and put in a bowl. Make a dressing with the vinegar, oil, mustard, anchovies and capers. Mix it with the chicory. Sprinkle over the parsley.
(If you’re not making the barbecued potatoes, roughly chop up ten cooked new potatoes and add them to the salad.)
To follow, a comforting old-school pudding, full of Protestant virtue, and sugar:
Bonfire Night Brownie (serves 8)
110g self-raising flour
1 tsp mixed spice
½ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla essence
50g butter, melted
150g muscavado sugar
300g cooking apples, core removed, cut into small chunks
70g walnuts, chopped
Heat the oven to 190°C.
Put the flour in a mixing bowl, and combine with the spice and the salt. Make a well in the middle, pour in the egg, the vanilla essence and the melted butter. Beat lightly to make a thick batter. Add the sugar, the apple chunks and the chopped walnuts, and mix well.
Butter a springform tart tin, ideally 22cm square, pour in the mixture, and spread evenly. Bake for 35 minutes, until firm. Leave for five minutes, and serve with crème fraîche.
Words by Orlando Gough