As a Págánacht each holy day is a time to reflect on our Iron Age ancestors and what their lives may have been like when they sat around their hearth or bonfire and celebrated their sacred times of the season.
The Iron Age Irish (700 BCE – 400CE) didn’t have the luxuries of the modern kitchen with the ceramic top stove and built in microwaves. Much of their time was spent out amongst the rest of their tribes, partaking in a three day festival of celebration and preparation for the new season. In the time of Samhain preparation was particularly important because they were at the end of the harvest period and entering the winter where food needed to be stored and cattle slaughtered for meat that would be salted and kept to sustain them through the winter.
Today, we do have the many modern luxuries afforded us by the technology we are blessed to have. There are some that may choose to celebrate this time in the way the ancestors did by breaking out their hearth fire and their cauldrons to cook. I have all the respect in the world for that practice and hope to one day be able to do it myself, but as a practical pagan in a modern world, that isn’t always feasible. My modern conveniences make my busy life much easier and I love my slow cooker, microwave and stove, so what can I do to truly connect to this time of year in a way my ancestors did? The simple answer? Food.
Iron age Feasts
Food and festivity have always gone hand in hand. Read of such legends as Bricriu’s Feast, The Funeral Feast of Lugh for Tailtu, and The Feast at Conan’s House and you will see about large banquets containing lavish amounts of pork, shellfish and, especially during Samhain celebrations, beef which were common ways to celebrate this season. As we know from such legends as the Táin BóCúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) your wealth could easily be measured in cattle. It was cattle that sustained the tribes through out the year, but not quite for the meat. Cattle gave milk which also led to various cheeses and curd (white meats) to the ancestors.
It was during the preparation for the dark times of winter that more beef was eaten because only small herds of cattle could be kept heated and alive for the re-emergence of spring into the light half of the year months later. Because of this beef can easily be chosen as the focal point of this Págánacht’s particular feast. Any modern preparation could work from broiling to braising to barbecuing. As Oíche Shamhna is a fire festival barbecuing is my choice of preparation though more traditional would have been working with a cauldron over an open flame so perhaps a modern pot on a stove. If you are not a fan of beef other heavily utilized meats were pork, goat and mutton or, if you prefer white meat, chickens or game birds would work as well.
Seafood and Vegetables in Iron Age Food recipes
While inland communities would focus more on land roaming meat sources those on the coast would have access to fish and shellfish and if you are like me no party is complete without shrimp cocktail. Of course the cocktail sauce is a modern twist I might avoid for continuity’s sake, but I’m sure you understand the sentiment. In this case, prawns, mussels, oysters and clams would also be a great main dish for this family or tribal gathering. For fish, selections like mackerel or even cod would work well. Salmon, which as we know from the legend of Finn and the Salmon of Knowledge, was a magical fish and as such (and the fact that it is rather tasty) is my first choice for an oceanic main dish.
In regards to vegetation my search for vegetables available to the Irish of the time has left me with the most questions and the least amount of choices. Cabbage was used in the Iron Age as were onions, introduced by the Romans, seaweed, leeks and edible fungus like mushrooms. There were some root vegetables as well such as carrots and parsnips. As for more information than that, I still have much research to do though obviously potatoes and maize (corn) were a New World introduction and though particularly potatoes became a staple of Irish cuisine starting in the late 1600s they would not have been available to our Iron Age counterparts. Onto sweeter vegetation, apples were very important fruits and their significance to the Samhain period has been passed to us here in the USA with the practice of Snap Apple and bobbing for apples as traditional Halloween games. Also wild berries of the season would have been part of a complete diet such as blackberries, strawberries and raspberries as well as rowan, bilberries and elderberries.
Bread, Bannocks, Honey & Plenty of Mead
Moving on to breads, we know that wheat, barley and oats were cultivated and as such bread would be common place at a meal. Though bannock, or what is now known as fry bread, has been claimed to originate with the Scots and also stated as being around since the times of the Druids and with the Scottish/Irish immigration history there is a reasonable assumption that a type of bread such as bannock would have been made on a hot stone in Ireland during this age as well. Bannock would include flour made from the aforementioned cereals, water, and lard.
I have seen other recipes that call for milk, eggs or even a leavening agent which would be viable Iron Age ingredients and from there one could go sweet adding various berries or savory with salt and herbs. If you wanted baking powder/soda would be a modern leavener as well as healthier oil alternatives are options, but for me, it’s a special occasion so a little lard makes it even more special. Let’s face it, our Irish Ancestors were carnivores through and through. Butter and, especially, honey would be time appropriate and yummy additions to your bread.
Speaking of honey I will move on with a proper beverage for an Iron Age feast. What feast wouldn’t be complete without Mead? As the Celtic people did have knowledge of beekeeping honey would have been available and honey wine (also known as Mead) was a common preparation for drinking. Different variations of Mead were common such as adding herbs to make a spiced version or adding fruit to make a sweet variation.
In a modern world one can walk to most specialty wine stores and buy Mead, pick up some home made from the local brewer, at a Renaissance or Harvest Faire, or even make it yourself. One quick recipe for Mead that I have tried consisted of honey, water, spices and Vodka (or Everclear). Wines would have been a luxury as they would have been imported and Ale would be another drink of choice though didn’t keep well without refrigeration. If drinking alcohol is not your thing there are non-alcoholic Mead recipes or there is always simply milk to stay within time period tradition.
Time for Dessert
While there wasn’t a distinction between a main dish and a dessert there were plenty of puddings one could create. Blood pudding from the animals they feasted from was common and would sometimes be salted and kept through the winter. Other varieties of pudding would include more sweet versions like tansy pudding made with breadcrumbs, tansy leaves and honey. Aside from puddings mixing of berries and nuts with honey or making fruit bread would be a time appropriate meal ender as well. There are many different options when cooking with your ancestry in mind. Just keep the ingredients as time specific as possible and get creative. Have fun coming up with new recipes and don’t forget to include the family in the cooking. It is, after all, a feast for the family and tribe in celebration of the coming of Winter.
Go mbeannaí Mórrígan thú!
Sources/Further reading –
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