With the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain falling on the last day of October and start of November, the harvest was in, food was plentiful and a huge feast of seasonal fare played a major part in the celebrations.
Turnips, apples and apple cider, mulled wines, gourds, nuts, beef, pork, poultry, ale – the Samhain recipes concocted from the harvest brought the community together as work halted, feasting started and the Celts ate the fruits of their labour, told stories and tried to predict their fortunes in the future.
Traditionally Irish foods at Halloween contain no meat, as when Samhain eventually merged with the Christian All Hallows Eve – the day before All Saints Day – to create Halloween, it was a day of preparation and fasting. With the food becoming anything vegetarian, Halloween was celebrated with the likes of potato dishes including champ, boxty, fadge – a type of apple cake – as well as fruit, nuts, barmbrack bread and a good colcannon dinner.
Colcannon, simple and uniquely Irish, has become popular all around the world. Made with potatoes mashed and mixed with chopped kale or green cabbage and onions, it is a hearty dish to have on Halloween night before you head out for an evening of fun and mischief.
Irish homes would traditionally be filled with the smell of baking bread over the open fire, and another delicious treat known as barmbrack becomes special in the weeks leading up to Halloween. This dried fruit-studded bread comes from the Irish ‘bairín breac’, which literally means speckled loaf.
While barmbrack is eaten all year round, it is only at Halloween that charms are added to the mix, each having a fortune-telling significance for the year ahead – and as this recipe for barmbrack shows, the fruits can be soaked in whiskey, tea, or both, which gives an added richness to the flavour.
Everyone in the family gets a slice of the bread, but you have to be careful when chewing and about what you find. A ring signifies the discovery of true love and marrying, a thimble means you will never marry, a rag predicts poverty while a finding a coin foretells that you will be rich.
Apples have always been associated with Halloween, though in Ireland they should never be picked during this time because it was believed the púca (fairy shapeshifters) spat on them the night after Samhain.
In modern Ireland this traditional foodstuff may take the form of apple monsters, creepy apple bites and apple pies with ghost-white cream to fit with an endless array of children’s treats that can involve anything from black widow spider biscuits, cranberry flavoured vampire juice and extra-devilled eggs.
In old Ireland, after a supper of colcannon, the young people used the apple just as well, allowing its peel to fall on the ground in the belief that it would show the initial letter of a sweetheart’s name, or ducking for apples in a barrel or basin of water – as still happens today.
Another favourite Halloween pastime for courting couples was to sit around the fire telling stories and roasting nuts. In Ireland, the old ways are the best.
Do you have a favourite Halloween or Irish food?
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