If you’ve grown up with a decent Irish Halloween, as I did, it’s hard to comprehend the travesty that is the contemporary festival here. It’s an amalgam of Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes and a US style Fright Night, celebrated with as much chocolate in skull and eyeball form that a child can eat. In fact anything dark and vaguely yucky is game for Halloween appropriation – from dark ramen (Wholefoods) to dark beer (Aldi).
Time was when it wasn’t a festival of chocolate crossed with parody masks of politicians we don’t like. In Ireland, it was an occasion for a party, when you’d eat apples and nuts and barm brack, and do bobbing the apple, when you’d dip your head in a bowl to try and catch the apples, or in our case, dive for the coins that rested on the bottom of the basin. In fact there was an element of pure mischief making; the night before Halloween was dignified as Banging Night, when we would go to people’s houses, bang on the door, and run away. It was only when I read Ronald Hutton’s account of the ritual year, The Stations of the Sun, that I found this aspect of the thing had quite a long provenance.
The barm brack was the crucial element of the night. It was a yeasted fruit cake which you ate in buttered slices. It was plain but the flavour was unique – barm is just a term for yeast. And inside each one there was a ring, wrapped in greaseproof paper. The person who got the ring in their slice would be the next to be married. So you’d slice quite carefully through the thing and at a sign of resistance and a glimpse of whitish paper, you’d know that you’d arrived at the prize. You still buy them in Irish supermarkets in the weeks up to Halloween; independent bakers make them. Along with monkey nuts (peanuts in their shells) and mixed nuts, it’s one of the elements of the traditional Halloween still remaining.
In fact this was just one element of a forgotten range of dishes for Halloween which focused on divination or fortune telling on the night. This is one of the things we do know was practised from a very early period for the time of year. Wherever the Irish travelled, the customs of Halloween went with them.
In earlier periods you might eat Colcannon, the potato/cabbage and leek mixture, which for Halloween included various fortune telling symbols. As Theodora Fitzgibbon says in her admirable little book, A Taste of Ireland (1968): “A plain gold ring, a sixpence, a thimble or a button are often put into the mixture. The ring means you will be married within a year; the sixpence denotes wealth, the thimble a spinster and the button a bachelor, to whoever gets them.” Just for the hell of it, I fancy reproducing just these symbols in mixed company.
Another savoury option for the night was Boxty, potato griddle cake made with flour and potatoes.
So, no chocolate. Absolutely none. When children went from house to house dressed up in a mask and their parents’ clothes and some unspeakable hat asking for a penny for the bobbin (the bobbing the apple game) they wanted in their bag either a bit of spare change, or apples or nuts. You didn’t expect pumpkin-shaped anything. Indeed pumpkins were an unknown quantity; what we had were root vegetables….turnips, swede turnips.
So how did we get from this comparatively restrained quasi pagan-Christian celebration to the horror fest with pumpkins that has taken over every supermarket in the month of October? It’s what happens when a feast goes to America and then comes back. A bit like Irish-themed bars, which left Ireland for Britain or America and then returned to Ireland, this is a US take on scary stuff. Ghosts were obviously a thing at this time of year, on the Eve of All Saints with All Souls coming up.
If you want to return to a real Halloween, you need a barm brack. Tesco do them online or make this one – based on an old recipe by Theodora Fitzgibbon. For a simpler yeast free tea bread try this version from Spectator Life’s The Vintage Chef.
Traditional barm brack recipe:
You will need:
1/2 pint tepid milk
1/2 lb sultanas
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 tsp of cinnamon
1/2 tsp of salt
3 oz caster sugar
3/4 oz yeast
4 oz currants
2 oz candied peel
1/4 tsp of nutmeg
- Sieve the flour, salt and spice into a large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
- Wash and dry the sultanas well and mix into the flour, along with the mixed peel and sugar. Dissolve the yeast in the tepid water.
- Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the beaten eggs, together with the water and yeast mixture. Form a dough, starting off with a wooden spoon and using your hand in the final stages of mixing.
- Put the dough on to a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until it feels springy and elastic, then put the dough back in the bowl and cover with a cloth. Leave in a warm place to rise until it has doubled in size. This will take approx 1 hour.
- Divide into two portions. Grease two 7-inch cake tins and put one portion in each tin, adding the ring at this stage. Cover again and leave to rise for about 30 mins.
- Bake in a moderate to hot oven (440 F) for about 1 hour. Test with a skewer before taking out of the oven.
- Glaze the top with 1 tbs sugar dissolved in 2 tbs boring water and put back in the oven for 3 minis.
- Turn out to cool on a wire tray and when cool serve in slices with butter. Tastes great toasted.