The strong winds at the weekend brought the remaining leaves down from the trees in the garden. The clocks also went back causing me to mourn the passing of the summer that we never had and to dread what the forthcoming winter has in store for us. On a more positive note, the nearby woods are full of the most glorious colours and it remains unseasonably warm for this time of year.
Yesterday, as I was pondering what to write this month, it came to mind that the passing of the seasons now attracts scant attention. In the days when agriculture was such a dominant force in this country, who could not have been aware that autumn was a time of harvest ? It was also the time when the cook had before him/her ingredients such as mushrooms, blackberries, nuts and apples. Before the days of frozen food and jet planes, autumn heralded that period of the annual cycle when on the vegetable front, one was largely confined to root crops such as turnips, carrots, parsnips and beetroot, and to eternal cabbage. Now, of course, one can have whatever vegetable one wants at any time of the year.
Somehow, I feel that this has not been to our gain, as we can no longer experience the excitement that came from eating seasonal food and from knowing that just as one vegetable or fruit became unavailable, another came on stream. Associated with this, were the rituals tied in with the preserving of certain foods against the time when they would no longer be available, or would be expensive to purchase. Here, I have in mind, for example, the past practice of preserving eggs in early autumn, when they were still relatively cheap. Eggs rose in price in winter as hens stopped laying, at the very time when they were required by the dozen for all those Christmas cakes and puddings. Now, tasteless eggs of a uniform size are cheaply available all the year around.
Yes, I accept that there is an element of progress lurking in all of these changes, but it would be good if it were more widely acknowledged that this generation has also faced a loss in no longer being able to feel and understand, for example, the simple culinary joy of eating the first new potatoes of the year, an event which in my childhood was always blessed by my father with that wonderful Irish expression, “Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís”
Soon, the children of this land and elsewhere will celebrate Halloween. In the queue at the cash desk in my local supermarket last week, I was astonished at the number of young mothers who had grizzly vampire and skeleton-like outfits in their trolleys. Obviously, their offspring will be dressing up. Soon too my dogs will have to endure days of being terrorized by exploding bangers down the village. Without wishing to sound a complete curmudgeon, dare I say that Halloween celebrations are clearly so different than they used to be?
The Halloween of my youth began at lunchtime when we always ate colcannon, a significant culinary moment because it was served on that day only. Small coins were inserted in the dish, which generated huge excitement. Who would be the richer for eating his lunch? Later in the day, friends were asked to play. Bowls of nuts were laid out with nut-crackers. An adult appeared to crack open the coconut with a hammer and here it may be worth mentioning that, apart from the pedestrian banana and some spices that were almost exclusive to Christmas, this was the only tropical food that featured in my childhood.
Then, there were games. An apple was attached to the end of a string, which in turn was connected to one of the hooks fixed in the ceiling of our old-fashioned kitchen. As the apple swung in the air, the aim was to grab it with your teeth and bite it. Out in the scullery was placed a huge tub full of water on top of which floated assorted nuts and fruit. These we sought to grab with our teeth, which involved ducking our heads into the water. You can imagine the fun and hilarity and splashing which accompanied this particular game. When we tired of what indoors had to offer, we went outside and in the darkness played forms of hide-and-seek, which focussed on frightening others with ghost-like sounds. There were no supermarket-bought fancy dress outfits and there were no bangers or fireworks, but there was a special tea. At the centre of this meal was barn brack which, like colcannon, was traditionally eaten in Ireland at Halloween. A ring, a bean, a pea and money were inserted into the brack and with each came a different message. Perhaps the ring foretold of a wedding in the near future for the lucky “winner”.
You must forgive me as my memory of this aspect of the proceedings is vague. However, I always loved brack, which was particularly good when toasted the following day. I still make it from time to time but have never used a traditional recipe. What follows was gleaned from a newspaper many years ago. I like it, not only because it is so simple to make, but also because apricots, my favourite fruit, may be included amongst the ingredients.
Whiskey tea brack
400g of dried fruit (you can stick to raisins and sultanas or use 200g of raisins and 200g of
dried apricots chopped small)
A large mug of hot, strong black tea
Two tablespoons of whiskey
The zest of a lemon
150g soft brown sugar
200g self-raising flour
A teaspoon of cinnamon
A teaspoon of allspice
Put the fruit into a bowl. Add the lemon zest and pour over the hot tea and whiskey. Stir well and then cover with cling film and leave to soak overnight.
The following morning, preheat the oven to 180C. You can bake this brack in a loaf tin, or a flat square tin if you want to get smaller finer slices. Grease the tin and line the base with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle the sugar on top of the soaked fruit and stir in well. Then fold in the flour and the spices. Crack the eggs into the mixture and stir well.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for up to an hour. Cool on a wire tray.