Halloween is a rather special day in Celtic culture as its Samhain or New Years eve in olden pagan times marking the end of the harvest as a time for safely processing and storing all the foods to get people through the cold season and also greeting the darkness of winter. Animals were finally brought in from the fields or from the high grazing grounds of summer. It was a time of community, celebration and feasting as well as remembering the ancestors as the pagans believed the veil between this world and the otherworld was opened and that is where the spooky element originates.
The arrival of Christianity then morphed it all into All Hallows eve and hence our Halloween. These days it is the second biggest global festival after Christmas but it all started on a sacred hill about ten miles from me three thousand years ago and continued then with the local Celts and their druids. Tonight all roads lead to that very hill as the focal point for the annual fire being lit to acknowledge its pivotal importance as the home of Halloween inspiring people all over the world now to celebrate it their own way.
Anything goes food wise in the modern Halloween but back in ancient times it was a whole different story. There were certainly no pumpkins, the emigrant Irish in nineteenth century America had none of their traditional turnips to carve out to leave on doorsteps to ward off the wandering spirits so the local pumpkins were used and so it has stayed that way.
Try hollowing out a turnip and you will see it requires a bit more skill to turn into a lantern. It was these Irish exiles that really got the modern Halloween going stateside. A lot of foods though are still the same at this time of year as back in ancient times. The Celts had plenty of orchard fruit, berries and nuts as well as honey. Remember most of the country was still a forest so anything growing there would be put to good use once they managed to avoid any bears or wolves. An animal of some sort would meet its maker for the feast, certainly a wild deer or boar or if domesticated a goat or bird like a rooster. It might be cooked on a spit or chopped up and let simmer in a type of stew. The rivers were full of salmon so that would be common too as a source of good protein
Of course potatoes had not arrived in Europe but they had plenty of grains so bread would have been made. Root vegetables like carrots and parsnips were available as well as onions, mushrooms and herbs. They would have had extensive knowledge of what was poisonous or not as someone would have had to try out a specimen and if they lived to tell the tale then it was safe to eat. So with all that produce they had plenty there for a decent nosh up around a bonfire. Food was also left out on doorsteps for the temporary back to living dead if they decided to pass by.
Drink wise they had figured out the natural yeast on the bark of trees if dropped into a vat of honey mixed with river water would ferment if left for a few days and hey presto the sugars were converted to alcohol and that was enough to get any party started. If anyone had to venture out they put on disguises as they feared they might be whipped away to the otherworld by the spirits hence the dressing up custom we have as part of Halloween today.
So with everyone having to stay in the idea of games and entertainment for all the family developed over the ages with a lot of them involving foods like apple bobbing and the anxious cutting of the barm brack with its hidden trinkets denoting your destiny for the following year from whichever one you received. Samhain has come a heck of a long way and we cannot imagine how it must have been like back in Celtic times but thing is for sure it was shindig and the Irish have not forgotten how to party.