Autumn has finally arrived, which for us Irish folk means that Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) is nearly here. While many people associate it with ghost stories and trick-or-treating, Irish people have a unique relationship with Halloween.
Samhain is an old Irish festival that stems from the time of myths and legends, of fairies, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the King of Tara. Thought to be descended for Pagan rituals, Samhain, which is one of the four Gaelic festivals of the year, takes place on October 31st.
It was thought that during Samhain, the veil between worlds was thinned so that fairies (the Aos Sí) and spirits could return to the world of the living from the Otherworld. Irish people held feasts to beckon their loved ones home while lighting bonfires for protection from evil spirits.
Food was a massively important part of Oíche Shamhna. Apples were associated with the Otherworld and immortality, while hazelnuts brought divine wisdom, so both were used in fortune-telling rituals. Certain particular dishes were particularly associated with Samhain, so over the next few weeks, we will be exploring these foods in more details. First up, colcannon.
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What Is Colcannon?
While potatoes are only thought to have come to Ireland in the 16th century, they rapidly became a staple of the traditional Irish diet. Fairly quickly, Irish people applied traditional Samhain rituals to potatoes and the result was colcannon, which is simply made with potatoes, butter, milk, cabbage or kale and spring onions. As well as Halloween, colcannon can often be seen on menus around St Patrick's Day.
Colcannon, which is well-known as an Irish mammy's classic, can vary by region so you might sometimes see varieties containing onions, chives or other types of cabbage. While it's a very versatile dish, colcannon is often served with ham, bacon or corned beef.
Traditionally speaking, colcannon was held in high regard around Samhain and was quickly incorporated into the feasts' menus. Similar to barmbrack and other traditional Irish dishes, prizes or charms were often hidden in colcannon, which were said to predict the diners' futures.
Charms varied by location, but some common types included the following: a coin, which meant wealth in the coming year; a thimble meant you would remain a spinster; a thimble was the male version of a thimble, meaning the diner would remain a bachelor for the next year; a ring meant that you would be married within the next year.
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Traditional Irish Colcannon Recipe
- 2kg or 8-10 floury potatoes, like russets, peeled and quartered
- 500g savoy cabbage or kale
- 125g salted butter
- 150ml milk
- Salt and pepper
- 2 bunches of spring onions, finely sliced
- Place the potatoes into a pot of cold, salted water and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until tender. Drain the potatoes, then return to the pot.
- While the potatoes are cooking, roughly chop the cabbage. Place in a pot of cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Cook for three to five minutes or until the cabbage is just cooked – you don't want it to overcook, which is a classic mistake. Drain the cabbage.
- Add the butter and milk to the potatoes and mash until smooth and creamy. Mix through a pinch of salt and pepper, then taste; you may need to add a little more butter, milk or seasoning, depending on your preferences.
- Mix through the spring onions and serve immediately.
Tune in next week for our next edition of Eating For Samhain, in which we'll take a closer look at barmbrack.
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