You might be tricked into thinking Halloween is just an excuse for overdosing on E-numbers, but, according to Elaine Lavery, the real treats are to be found buried in tradition
Who doesn’t love Halloween? Fitting snugly between back-to-school season and the depths of winter, this age-old tradition provides ample opportunity for a sense of occasion, one that is neither falsely manufactured by card or alcohol manufacturers, nor built up over two months and exploited by every commercial enterprise in the Western world (the C word, which in October, I consider a significantly more offensive term than the other C word). Granted, for students the days of trick-or-treating and apple-bobbing might be over, but Halloween does not have to be just another excuse for a piss-up. For me, Halloween is synonymous with food.
Let’s begin with the obvious: the pumpkin. Most of us have retained the tradition of carving one out to make a ‘Jack-o’-Lantern’, but many are oblivious to its use as a culinary ingredient. I had to laugh last year – my aunt observed that in most houses the fight revolves around who gets to draw and carve out the pumpkin’s face, in ours it is over who gets the use of the scooped-out flesh to transform into something delicious. Some past experiments include: garlic pumpkin risotto, with basil pesto and crispy shallots; pumpkin pasta with mozzarella, Parmesan and cheesy pumpkin soup with crunchy croutons, sage and chives. I can attest that it is greed, and not frugality that motivates me, but for the really frugally minded, save the seeds, roast off and salt for a vitamin E filled snack.
A little-known dish that is served up in many Irish households around Halloween is colcannon. This dish comprises of mashed potato mixed with kale (which is similar to cabbage), roughly chopped scallions, plenty of butter and salt and pepper. It is a great accompaniment to bacon (as in bacon and cabbage). The ritual at Halloween is to hide money (sterilised, of course) in the Colcannon. There are, of course, remarkable health benefits to eating kale, as with any green leafy veg – plenty of iron to give you muscles like Popeye.
Another Irish tradition with its roots in Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival from which we derive or traditions today, is Bairin Breac, more commonly known nowadays as Barnbrack. We all remember the Halloween parties in primary school, when an art form was created in catching a glimpse of the bit of paper indicating the piece with the ring in it. I don’t think anyone ever had so much as a mouthful of the brack itself. Love it or hate it, don’t judge it until you’ve made your own. Soak the raisins, currants and sultanas in tea for plumped up juicy fruit that will make for a moist cake. Slather in butter hot out of the oven for a teatime treat, or toast with butter and apricot jam for an indulgent breakfast.
In the days of yore, the ring, symbolising marriage within the year, was not the only prize to be found in the brack. For some real fun bake the full range of objects into your brack (wrapped in greaseproof paper). He who gets the coin will be rich, the rag poor; she who gets the thimble is destined to become a spinster and a forewarning to he who gets the stick (half a matchstick), for he shall be beaten by his wife.
If you consider all of the above pleasant reading material but have no intention of making any of it, there’s one thing I urge you to do. Buy a big net of monkey nuts and roast them, in their shells, in a hot oven for about twenty minutes for a delicious anytime snack. It takes no skill and literally costs peanuts. If you can afford to invest in a nutcracker, broaden your range with hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts.
There is something special about preserving a tradition which many have discarded. This Halloween take inspiration from our ancestors and celebrate the edible treats and traditions of this ancient festival.