Such is the current dominance of American-style Halloween festivities in Britain: it could almost be the result of a marketing pact sealed at midnight between America’s pumpkin, fancy dress and candy industries as a way to increase their global sales. Indeed in the USA today, Halloween is third only to New Year’s Eve and the Superbowl final as an occasion to eat, drink and be merry. But look a little deeper, beyond the pumpkin pie, jelly and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video, and you’ll find the much older traditions, customs and recipes native to the British Isles and Ireland.
For the Celts, just as for us now, late October saw the end of the harvest and the onset of winter. The festivities associated with this marked the passage of one year to the next. Sacred plants and foodstuffs like acorns, nuts and apples were not only eaten, but also used for divination and fortune telling. Most of these folk customs centered around determining potential spouses and remained in use in the more remote parts of Britain until the late eighteenth century. It was said that the peel of an apple thrown over your left shoulder, for example, would curve into the initial of the one you will marry. Or that a girl who cut an apple into nine slices and held each on the point of her knife before her mirror at midnight, might see the face of her future lover behind her, who would ask for the last slice. (You can see why the Church opted for an apple as the fruit that tempted Eve.)
Perhaps the ultimate food fortune teller however was the Irish bread called Barmbrack. This yeast-leavened bread was enriched with dried fruit, and when made at Halloween contained various symbolic additions. Find a ring in your slice, and you were to marry within the year; a dried pea meanwhile meant poverty and loss; while a bean or coin indicated good fortune. It’s still made today and commercial versions contain a plastic ring.
Beverages also got the apple treatment. Lamb’s wool is a drink made from the pulp of roasted apples mixed with milk and seasoned with spices. Many believe the name comes from its white frothy appearance, but it’s more likely to be a corruption of a Celtic phrase indicating the first day of November. This day was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits and seeds and was called La Mas Ubhal (pronounced 'lamasool'), that is 'the day of the apple fruit'. In English this was corrupted to lamb’s wool. The drink - often made with ale or cider rather than milk - was also drunk over Christmas and into January in Britain. Indeed such was the glut of apples at this time of year they were also put to use in probably the only folk custom many of us still enact today, namely bobbing for apples. And so we don’t leave out the Welsh and their Halloween food habits, amongst other things they believed that a crust of dry bread eaten before going to bed on Halloween would lead to wishes being fulfilled.
Nowadays of course we use dating websites algorithms rather than apple peel or nuts to find future spouses, but if you’re going to have a party on Halloween, why not feature a few ancient customs and foods of our forefathers? With the right atmosphere, ancient druids, fruits, fairies and imps can be a lot more macabre than rubber-faced B-Movie monsters.
What are the Halloween traditions in your house? And what will be cooking this Halloween?
Andrew Webb is a writer and food journalist.