Wednesday 13 November 2019

Irish Halloween food traditions: Where did barmbrack get its name, and why is champ important?

While 2018's trick or treaters can expect of haul of sweets, in times past Halloween was a harvest festival celebrated with fruit, nuts and a colcannon dinner. Here, Katy McGuiness looks at some ancient Irish food traditions and the - often dark and spooky - predictions associated with them…

Old fashioned caramel apples with brunch sticks and nuts
Old fashioned caramel apples with brunch sticks and nuts
Tradition: The Barmbrack available at Bewley's on Dublin's Grafton Street contains symbols indicating your fortune for the year

Halloween is thought to have its origins in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated on November 1, when the spirits of those who had died during the previous year were allowed to pass on to the next world. Bonfires were lit, and gifts of food and drink provided so that the wandering spirits did not go hungry. Later, Samhain evolved into the Christian commemoration of the dead on All Saints' and All Souls' Day, preceded by the vigil of Halloween - a night of feasting and devilment.

The celebration came at the end of a period of hard work for farmers, as the jobs of bringing cattle indoors, digging the last of the potatoes and stacking the oats were all to be completed by Halloween.

No wonder people were in the mood to let loose.

"In Ireland, the festival marks the transition point between the autumn and winter season," explains Regina Sexton, food historian. "Folklore believed that this was a time where this world and an alternate fairy world merged, which allowed us to do things we wouldn't normally be able to do like fortune telling and seeing into the future."

In her book, The Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink, Brid Mahon relates a slew of superstitions associated with the festival. "Blackberries should not be picked or apples taken from the tree because it was said that the púca [the goblins of Irish folklore] spat on them on the night after Samhain. In the Glens of Antrim they said the devil shook his club and blanket at these fruits.

"In north Leinster and parts of Ulster the old tradition of leaving food out for the fairies on Halloween was still observed in living memory. A plate of champ [mashed potato with spring onion, butter and milk], complete with spoon, was set at the foot of the nearest fairy thorn (hawthorn or whitethorn) or at the gate entrance to a field on both Halloween and All Souls' Night, November 2. This was considered by some a ritual for the dead, by others an offering to the fairies.

"After the traditional supper of colcannon, young people played games involving ducking for apples in a barrel or basin of water, or allowing the peel of an apple to fall on the ground in the belief that it would show the initial letter of a sweetheart's name. A favourite pastime was for courting couples to sit around the fire telling stories and roasting nuts... Almost all games and practices on this night had to do with love and courtship."

Until relatively recently, November 1 was a day of abstinence, which explains the lack of meat in the dishes traditionally associated with Halloween. Brid Mahon writes that "according to church ruling, no flesh meat was allowed. Colcannon, apple cake and barmbrack, as well as apples and nuts were part of the festive fare. Colcannon was cooked in a skillet pot which had a large round bottom, three little legs and two ear-like handles at the sides, and consisted of potatoes mashed and mixed with chopped kale or green cabbage and onions... eaten by dipping each spoonful into a well of butter."

Boxty pancakes were another Halloween favourite, as was fadge, an apple potato cake.

In her quest for the perfect recipe, food writer Felicity Cloake learns that barmbrack - or bairín breac (speckled bread, as in speckled with fruit) in Irish - is a close relation of the Welsh bara brith: "a plain, yet richly fruited bread that's well suited to a generous topping of butter, and an excellent accompaniment to a pot of tea." The dried fruits are usually soaked in whiskey or tea, which gives a rich flavour.

The name barmbrack is linked to the froth or "barm" leftover after fermenting beer or ale, which is mixed with sultanas and spice to make a heavy, fruity bread. And while brack is eaten all year round, it is only at Halloween that symbolic additions are made to the mix, each with a supposed fortune-telling significance for the year ahead.

The most common symbols are a pea, a matchstick, a piece of cloth, a coin, a thimble, and a ring. Of these, the only ones worth having are the coin (unsurprisingly a predictor of wealth) and the ring - but only if you're single and in the market for getting hitched, as it is said to indicate an impending marriage.

If you find the pea, you won't be getting married any time soon, while the matchstick is associated with an unhappy marriage or dispute, the cloth indicates bad luck and poverty, and the thimble represents spinsterhood - all fairly gloomy predictions to have hanging over one for 12 months.

According to Regina Sexton, one of the rarer items that can be included in a barmbrack is a small religious medal.

"Whoever found the medal will most likely end up being a priest or nun in the future," she says, making it another prophetic symbol that most will want to avoid.

During the late 19th century, many commercial bakeries started selling barmbrack, complete with symbols, but in recent years there are few prepared to risk litigation in the event of a broken tooth or choking.

Bewley's Grafton Street, however, has thrown caution to the winds and this year is selling a hand-crafted barmbrack made to a 100-year-old recipe, which involves soaking the fruit in Bewley's Gold Tea and leaving it to mature for a few days before serving.

The barmbrack is available in Bewley's Grafton Street, wrapped in reusable beeswax paper for €35 and without the beeswax paper for €25. A slice of barmbrack will also be served with the fortune telling charms in Bewley's Grafton Street for €5.50 until early November.

It tastes delicious, but whether anyone superstitious or of a nervous disposition should consider consuming it is another matter entirely.

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