Growing up in 1960s England my memories of this time of year were of Hallowe’en being a much bigger deal for our Irish family than for English families, who tended to focus on Bonfire Night (which for obvious reasons we did not celebrate). From a very early age I can remember my mother lighting candles, my father bringing in bags of nuts and satsumas and apples being bobbed for in icy cold water. A swede lantern would be prepared and would give off a fairly unpleasant sweet smell as it warmed up. Dad might light a fire in the back garden and we would spook each other with ghost stories – and the three of us older girls dressed up as Banshees or witches. There was no Hallowe’en “industry” in those days and I can remember my oldest sister Lise and our great friend Oliver hanging a piece of white, embossed wallpaper cut to the shape of a ghost in the linen cupboard. They lined us all up to open the door and look. When you opened the door, even just a crack the paper moved in the draft and caught the light and I can remember that this was literally terrifying for the five year old me.
I remember my Grandfather, a wonderful teller of ghost stories, speaking of how in the Irish Midlands he would walk the roads and hedges in the weeks before Hallowe’en to collect nuts for his children using a long stick to pull down the highest branches. And in the days before every shop overflowed with spooky Hallowe’en confectionary and plastic junk, the onus was on simply scaring yourself silly and eating nuts that my father would crack from their shells on the table by candlelight.
Years later my own children, nieces and nephews were always visited by a mysterious and strange woman each Hallowe’en. Madam Magdalena was an outrageous and vaguely Eastern European fortune teller who announced her arrival by bashing on the front door with her stick three times each year to the dread and delight of the children.
I never met her myself, as I was of course alway “busy in the kitchen” when she arrived….. and even my own kids weren’t quite sure who she really was!
To me it always feels that Hallowe’en is a really important part of my heritage. And of course the ancient feast of Samhain was a celebration of the turning of the seasons, the end of the old and the promise of the new. A time to reflect on our loved ones who have departed this world and a time to feel close to them. So in collecting and eating that final harvest of apples, nuts and root vegetables on Hallowe’en, we are preparing for the ending of the light but we also demonstrate that darkness and death is just another part of the cycle of life. And by gathering together and playing games and tricks we are learning to say we are not afraid of death.
So in the spirit of the day of course we can move easily from Death to sweet treats for the junior banshees…..and that is precisely what this time of year is all about.
So, I’m just doing a quick and easy treat for this evening that reminds me of those bags of nuts that my Dad and my Grandfather would have shared out each year. But I am adding a crispy, sweet, salty crust for any “trick or treaters” that may come to call. And who knows Madam Magdalena may grace us with her presence and I am reliably informed that she would enjoy these with a large glass of red.
Sea Salt Candied Hazelnuts
- 150 g Whole Hazelnuts (or other nuts such as pecans, walnuts, almonds or a mixture of)
- 50g white caster sugar
- Half a teaspoon of sea salt flakes
- 1 tablespoon of water
- A baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment.
- A saucepan
- An airtight jar if you intend to store them
- Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees centigrade.
- Heat the sugar and the water in the saucepan over a low heat until it is completely dissolved. Then bring it to the boil slowly and without stirring.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the nuts and gently stir so that they are coated by the syrup.
- Now pour the contents of the saucepan on to the baking tray and gently spread them out evenly. Sprinkle them with the salt flakes and pop them in the oven.
- These will take about 20 minutes to cook and you need to check them every five minutes and give them a quick stir about to separate the nuts from each other. When they are ready they should be coated with a golden brown sugary crust.
- Take them out and let them cool completely.
Serve on their own, or as a crunchy topping for cakes or ice cream. Or save them till the end of a meal with a cup of coffee and a glass of Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur). And maybe raise a glass then to the ancestors and those departed friends and family that we shared this special time of the year with in our youth.