Yellow – symbol of light, warmth and prosperity: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

Julia recalls the dazzling yellow of chrysanthemums featuring in the Vietnamese spring festival, and returns to a chilly northern Europe for the mid-winter festival of Yuletide

‘YELLOW’ writes Michel Pastoreau in his book of the same name (Princeton University Press 2019) describing this bold colour’s evolving place in art, religion, fashion, literature and science, ‘was almost sacred in antiquity, a symbol of light, warmth and prosperity. Warm yellow recalls honey and gold, serving as a sign of pleasure and abundance. In Asia yellow has generally had a positive meaning.’

It was in Asia, in the south of Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, that I was witness to more yellow abundance, particularly floral, than I could previously ever have imagined.

It was in February, during Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán, the Spring Festival which coincides with the Lunar New Year, the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Tết is when families reunite and feast, give gifts and parade noisily through the city to the thud of drumbeats and exploding fire crackers, dragon dancers interweaving the crowds.

With flowers everywhere, yellow flowers whose gold colour, the colour of coinage, is symbolic of prosperity and good luck.

The blossoms of the mai tree are out, creating spectacular clouds of yellow, their spiky branches often also adorned with baubles. (The mai, Ochna integerrima genus Ochna, family Ochnaceae is a small shrub believed to protect households from the ghosts of ill fortune.)

Wandering the aisles of the city’s vast Ho Thi Ky flower market, I marvelled at stalls close-packed with the dazzling yellow chrysanthemums and miniature yellow-fruited kumquat trees which are purchased in pots from mid-December onwards for embellishing homes, businesses, temples, shrines and pagodas.

Marigolds also feature (they symbolise longevity) but more evidently, as my photos show, it’s the chrysanthemum that’s favoured, its flowers often referred to as ‘yellow daisies.’ Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.

All these flowers, how could a gardener not be happy?

One definition of ‘contentment’ is that it’s a by-product of happiness, ‘an emotional state of satisfaction, resulting from being at ease in one’s situation, body and mind.’

So, visiting a Garden of Contentment, what would you find under cultivation?

For the answer to that, we’d have to consult YUAN MEI (1716-97), the author of China’s most revered cookbook.

Yuan, poet and scholar-gentleman, abandoned a career as an imperial bureaucrat to retire to an estate near Nanjing in the country’s east.

Here he at first devoted his entire time to designing his own garden. (Coincidentally, in 1929 Nanjing became the site of China’s first Botanical Garden.) We have no record of what Yuan planted but we can let our imagination range over raked gravel, falling water, weeping willows, blossoming cherry trees and drifts of azaleas set among groves of feathery bamboo.

As an educated man, Yuan himself probably never cooked, but he employed a maverick chef, Wang Xiaoyu, and was a meticulous gourmet, recording his impressions – often scathing – at the dinners he attended in grand houses.

When he and Wang began collaborating on the book Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, Yuan demonstrated he clearly favoured classic food, prepared simply. He insisted the art of cookery began with the ingredients, claiming the chef could take credit for only 60 per cent of a banquet’s success, the rest deserved by whoever cultivated the ingredients or shopped for them.

A speciality from the cookbook still famously popular? YANGSHENG Lake hairy crabs – cooked in the simplest fashion: steamed and served with a dipping sauce of ginger and vinegar. Today fishermen haul tons of these from the lake annually, testimony to the longevity of an intense Chinese appetite for the delicacy.

Winter festival

Heading back to the western side of the globe, Y is for YULETIDE, the period we’ll shortly enter. Yule is the traditional Germanic Winter festival beginning at the Winter Solstice (21 December) when in the northern hemisphere the longest night of the year is reached. At Yule the sun stops its decline and briefly rises daily in about the same place before starting its progress north so that days begin lengthening again.

In days of old the ceremony of the Yule log was of central significance to the 2 month-long festival. For this, a forest tree was felled at the solstice for feeding the always-alight communal fire – this feeding then to be done without chopping up the trunk! The top of the tree would go first into the fireplace. Through the weeks of deep wintertime its remaining length, gradually pushed into the flames, would ensure the dark was kept at bay.

Another Yule tradition was decking the home with plants, harnessing their life force to benefit from their sympathetic magic. This use of evergreen boughs, holly, ivy, birch boughs and mistletoe has a clear line of descent to how we do our Christmas decorating today.

And of course our Christmas conifer is also a German legacy, in that Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria, introduced the concept of a lighted and decked-out tree to Britain in 1846. A sketch in the weekly magazine, the Illustrated London News, showed the Royal couple standing with their children around such a tree – what was done at court immediately becoming wildly fashionable.

And to bring yellow, the exotic east and German Yuletide traditional feasting full circle around to Cornwall, let us not forget saffron, that highly prized spice, especially toothsome when it’s incorporated into the fruity bread-cake known as ‘stollen’ (whose folded-over shape symbolises the swaddled baby Jesus lying in the manger.)

Saffron, believed to have originated in Iran, comes from the dried stigma of Crocus sativus. Poundedto an amber-yellow powder, this is used to dye fabric and season and colour food. 

From possibly as early as 2000 BC Phoenician traders from North Africa exchanged their saffron for Cornish tin and copper – a long-lived baking tradition thus established!

Up to the 1890s Cornish-grown saffron was harvested at Penryn. Today the Cornish Saffron Company has revived cultivation on the Roseland Peninsula. Mail order supply is available at www.cornishsaffron.co.uk

On www.delicious-cooking.com you’ll find the recipe for making your own Orange and Apricot Stollen with Saffron. Or, if in Penzance, try sourcing a marzipan-filled one from the deli counter at greengrocer Thornes.

YUANMING, TAO

"At the feet of the Eastern fence, I pick a chrysanthemum 
In the distance, detached and serene 
I see the Mountains of the South "

Tao Yuanming (365 – 427) is remembered as one of China’s greatest poets and a noted recluse. A passionate admiration of the chrysanthemum flower (as per the quote above) characterises Yuanming’s verse. Born into an impoverished aristocratic family, Yuanming became a county magistrate but resigned from official life, repelled by its widespread corruption. Retiring to a village south of the Yangtze River, despite the hardships of a farmer’s life and frequent food shortages, he lived contentedly, writing poetry and relishing drinking the area’s wines, also a subject frequently featuring in his verse. A master of the five-word line, Yuanming’s lasting fame derives from his status as the first great poet of tianyuan ‘Fields and Gardens’ landscape poetry inspired by nature of a domestic kind such as that found in gardens, in backyards, and in the cultivated countryside (as opposed to the then-fashionable, grander-visioned shanshui ‘Mountains and Rivers’ poetry).

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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