Halloween is a time of the year steeped in tradition and history, conjuring up thoughts of ghosts and ghouls. But there is a lot lot more to Halloween than that!
There are literally thousands of traditions and superstitions which span almost all countries and cultures around the world, none more so than Ireland. Being from Northern Ireland we are going to tell you some of the Irish traditions that have been passed down through generations of many Irish families.
It is thought that Halloween in Ireland was first celebrated by the Celts who referred to it as Samhain, which in modern Irish language has actually come to mean November. It was believed that during this time the dead revisit this world. To celebrate this they had feasts, the ‘Feast of the Dead’.
During the 8th Century Samhain became known as All Hallows which was the 1st of November. The evening before therefore became known as All Hallows Eve, or as we know it now Halloween.
We’re going to share with you a recipe for a very traditional Irish fare during the time of Halloween. Barmbrack is an Irish fruit cake, some would call fruit bread. It’s deliciously sweet but with no butter or oil in the recipe and very little sugar it isn't too bad for you either. At least compared to all those sweets we end up consuming over Halloween. The recipe for barmbrack traditionally uses raisins soaked in tea preferably overnight which makes the cake not only moist but nice and sweet too. Tradition dictates that the person baking the cake for their guests would bake a coin, a ring and a small piece of rag into the cake. When the cake was served, if you got the ring you were believed to be lucky in love over the coming year, the coin meant you were to come into money over the coming year and the rag…..was believed to be a sign of misfortune over the coming year. So as not to distress any of our guests we decided to leave out the piece of rag from our cake, haha.
Before we share the recipe we will share with you two more fantastic Halloween tradition and its origins.
The Carved Pumpkin
Everyone knows the association of the carved pumpkin with Halloween, but few know the story behind where it originates. It is believed the legend first started with an Irish blacksmith named Jack. Jack made a deal with the devil and was therefore not permitted to enter heaven. He returned to the devil and asked for some light to guide him on his way as he forever wandered the earth. The devil gave him a bright red hot burning ember. Jack placed this in a turnip which he had hollowed out. Generations of Irish families followed the tradition of carving out turnips and displaying them in the windows in their homes with a candle inside, in the hope to keep jack from visiting them in their homes. As we know many Irish families emigrated from Ireland to the United States of America during the famine and other times of hardship. When they emigrated they took with them generations of traditions, carving turnips was among them. With one problem, turnips were very hard to source in the USA. They instead started using the readily available pumpkins and so the tradition of carving pumpkins began. This tradition then fed back to Ireland over the years. But as a young boy I still remember our family carving both a turnip and pumpkin at Halloween.
A legend passed down through many Irish families is that of the Banshee. Believed to be a woman form of a fairy she visited families and announced her presence outside the family house by wailing or ‘keening’. None of those inside dared to ever look outside for they knew what the sound meant. The sound was believed to mean that someone within the immediate family was about to die. Although not specifically a Halloween legend it is more strongly believed and feared at this time of year. There is believed to be a Banshee for my own family, who was rumoured to have been heard several times. The stories passed down say that one particular female ancestor in the 1800’s was so superstitious of this legend that she would be found the morning after hearing the Banshee, writing letters to all immediate family to check that they had not met their end the following night. The Banshee isn't limited to the island of Ireland, for she is said to visit Irish families wherever they live around the world.
Now for the long awaited Barmbrack recipe.
220g NEILL'S® Plain Flour
2tsp Baking Powder
0.25tsp Bicarbonate Soda
80g Dark Brown Sugar
0.5tsp Vanilla Extract
Steep the raisins in the tea for at least 3 hours. If you can leave them overnight in the fridge as this will make them super juicy.
Preheat oven to 160c.
Mix the egg, sugar and vanilla into the raisins and tea mixture. Ensure these are mixed evenly throughout.
Sieve the flour and baking powder and bicarbonate soda together in a separate bowl and slowly add this to the wet mixture while mixing. There is no need to use a mixer for this recipe as it will cause the raisins to break up, a wooden spoon is perfectly sufficient. Mix enough to combine all the flour.
Pour into a prepared cake tin and bake near the bottom of the oven for 45-50 mins or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.
Remove from oven and allow to cool for 15 mins before turning out to cool completely. Slice and serve with tea but traditionally this would be eaten with a little butter spread on it.