Seasonal eating has become a buzzword for trendy chefs, but it was not too long ago that the Season dictated the menu of the day. Samhain which means “Summer’s End” celebrates the last harvest of the growing season and prepares us for the colder, darker days ahead. At this time of year, our ancestors took stock of what food was harvested, killed off any livestock deemed too weak or costly to survive the Winter and gathered any remaining crops or fallen fruit in the fields. It was considered taboo to eat anything left in the growing fields after the 31st of October, the festival of Samhain, and so was left to the Nature spirit and returned to the Earth. Between the slaughtered animals, the rotting crops and the tradition of remembering our dead, Samhain, had a deathly air about it that is, to some extent, mirrored in the modern-day celebration of Halloween. It is a pity that many of our cultural and spiritual connections with the Season and the land have been hijacked by consumerism and retail vulgarity. The food preparations and rituals enjoyed by our ancestors at Samhain prepared them both physically and emotionally for the long, dark Winter that lay ahead. Despite huge change, we are still faced today with similar health problems associated with the season that challenged our ancestors – colds, flus, tummy bugs, sadness and loneliness, but their traditions and timely preparations of seasonal ingredients and activities meant that communities back then shared good food and company which helped ease the uncertainty and hazards of the gloomier days and nights during Winter.
The Real Meaning of Samhain
Samhain is the halfway mark between the Autumn equinox and the Winter Solstice. Although it was the end of the growing season, there were still many foods left to be enjoyed throughout the Winter. Traditional foods include nuts (hazels and chestnuts), apples, berries, potatoes, dark bread (rye), barley, cabbage, root vegetables, sea vegetables and a good selection of dried herbs - rosemary, mugworth, mullein, sage, bay and many others that were used in food and as medicines for the Winter season. The livestock that was slaughtered around Samhain, was respectfully prepared, dried or cured without any waste, to last throughout the season. Depending on where you lived and if you had land, game and fish were also on the menu and came in handy when meat supplies became scarce. The tradition and lore surrounding these foods are deeply rooted in the rituals and remedies of the season, many of which helped to keep us connected with the land and each other for the good of our health and well-being.
The Significance of Rosemary
Rosemary has long been associated with remembrance throughout the World. Ancient Greek and Roman scholars wore garlands of rosemary while studying as they knew it would help them remember and recall their studies. More recently, studies concluded that students who worked in a room with the aroma of rosemary oil achieved 30% greater results in memory tests. It is also the symbol of remembrance of our loved ones. At Samhain, people hung a bunch of rosemary over the doorway in memory of their loved ones who had passed away. Many of the traditions associated with death during Samhain helped to process grief and reassure those left behind to let go of negative emotions associated with grief.
Apples had a central role on the Samhain table as they stored well and were still plentiful. Before they were ever slathered in toffee and sprinkles, apples were split in two and the formation of the seeds inside represented the five elements of life in Pagan times – Earth, Fire, Water, Air and Ether (Spirit), their position and presence bore significance, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, for the one who split the apple. Bobbing for apples and swinging the apple from a string are well-known Samhain games that are still with us today. As Samhain marked the end of the year, many rituals looked forward to the coming year and what fortune lay ahead, usually in love or in prosperity. One such ritual was to peel the apple, making one long piece from its skin. When it eventually breaks off, leave to drop on the ground. The letter it most resembles when it falls is likely to mark the initial of a future partner – no need for Tinder when Granny Smith is around!
The Spooky Factor
At Samhain, it is believed that the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is at its thinnest. It is the best time to summon our ancestral spirits for advice and good news of the year ahead while warding off the evil ones with scary masks and Jack o’Lanterns. Turnips and mangles featured long before the pumpkin but again, some of today’s spooky faces hark back to when these tough vegetables were carved, lit and placed on a windowsill to ward off any dodgy or unwelcome spirits at Samhain. When Celtic pagans migrated to the US, they brought this tradition with them and were thrilled to discover the pumpkin, which were in season at Samhain yet much easier to carve!
My Favourite Halloween Treat!
Báirín Breac (Barm Brack), another great fortune telling food item for the Samhain table. The fruit speckled tea loaf was baked with symbols representing insights for the year ahead:
The Pea: No marriage for you this year (refer back to the apple game)
The Bean: You will be prosperous and full of beans
The Rag: You will be poverty-stricken and destitute
The Coin: You will be wealthy and rich – beware of the one who got the Rag
The Ring: You will be wed this year and live happily ever after – well, at least until next year!
Hope all our readers have a meaningful and blessed Samhain!