A creature visiting from another world at this time of year could be forgiven for thinking that we are about to celebrate a major pumpkin festival, so ubiquitous are the orange gourds in every greengrocer and supermarket. Images of them are everywhere, other foods have become temporarily pumpkin-shaped and cookery magazines and websites are all offering ideas for things to do with pumpkin flesh.
Pumpkins have only come to such seasonal dominance in this country relatively recently and were preceded for a couple of hundred years by the rather less glamorous and less prolific turnip. Pity the poor muddy, warty turnip lantern, usurped in its homeland by a brash incomer.
But much as traditionalists like me might lament the demise of the culturally sound turnip lantern, you have to hand it to pumpkins - they look great. With their pleasingly buxom shape, rich bright colour and jaunty stalks they could have been created by Disney. And they win hands down on convenience. Making a lantern from a pumpkin takes minutes. Gouging out a turnip results in bruised palms, purple air and bent spoons and takes an hour.
Turnip flesh is perfect mashed up with potatoes to make clapshot, or served with haggis, but beyond mashing or boiling it there is little else to do with turnips except feed them to sheep. Pumpkin on the other hand can be included in any number of exotic recipes and cooked in several different ways, although generally the smaller the pumpkin, the sweeter and tastier the flesh. If your child has the biggest Jack-o-lantern in the class, the flesh will be stringy, woody, bland and pretty inedible.
The classic American treat of sweet, cinnamon-flavoured pumpkin pie is a bit of a fiddle to make but well worth the effort. (If you want to have a huge lantern and a pumpkin pie you can buy smooth tinned pumpkin from some delis.) Pumpkin is a tasty risotto ingredient and also makes perfect velvety soup. Delia Smith’s Winter Collection includes two brilliant recipes for pumpkin soup, one with pieces of melting gruyere cheese in it and a spicier pumpkin soup made with garlic, ginger, chilli, coconut milk and coriander leaves, which is delicious. (As a turnip fan I have also made a very good cream of turnip soup with thyme, so having a culturally superior turnip lantern instead of a pumpkin needn’t mean that you miss out on a good bowl of warming Hallowe’en soup.)
Pumpkin pieces can be added to curries, baked in their skin with butter, or grated and microwaved either on their own or with courgettes to make an unusual vegetable accompaniment. Pureed pumpkin added to bread dough makes a moist loaf and it is a superb filling for ravioli.
However, pleasing though it may be, pumpkin-based food is not traditional Scottish Hallowe’en fare and dark, cold, Celtic Hallowe’en is a perfect time to revel in native traditions.
Eating treacle scones strung from a washing line hung across the kitchen is a long-established Hallowe’en game. The treacle scones should be the floury triangular kind, not flavoured with treacle when baked but daubed in sticky treacle before being hung up. (It is a good idea to put a newspaper down on the floor to catch the drips.) All competitors should then have their hands tied behind their backs and the idea of the game is to see who can eat most of their scone.
Dooking for apples is another favourite game and a good one to play after the scone game as it involves sticking your head in a bucket of cold water to catch a floating apple in your teeth. Forking for apples when competitors stand on a kitchen chair above the bucket of apples and drop a fork from between their teeth to try and spear an apple is a less extreme version of the game suitable for younger children and people sensitive about their coiffure.
Apples also feature in the girly game of peeling an apple in one and throwing the peel over your shoulder. If you do this on Hallowe’en night the peel is said to fall in the shape of the first initial of the first name of the person you will marry. Another apple-related Hallowe’en game for unmarried females was to sit in front of a mirror holding an apple in one hand. The mirror was supposed to reflect back the face of the person she would marry. Safe to assume that if a modern girl was caught doing this it would seriously deter any man who heard about it from going near her.
More Hallowe’en games involving food, superstition and future matrimony were played with nuts. In the Western Isles it was traditional for two large nuts representing intended spouses to be placed in the fire. If the nuts jumped together when they warmed up it was a good omen but if they jumped apart it was not. Throughout Scotland hazelnuts were used at Hallowe’en to assess potential suitors. Two nuts were given names and placed in front of the fire. Young women (invoking witchcraft in matters of the heart does seem to have been mainly a girl thing) would then recite "If you love me pop and fly, if you hate me burn and die." The first nut to pop would be the one representing her more likely suitor.
If red and green are the colours of Christmas, orange is the colour of Hallowe’en. Even if you can’t be bothered with lanterns or dressing up, a huge bowl of satsumas on the table gives a nod towards seasonality. This is the best time of year for satsumas, when they are still sharp and firm. Flat side down you can use satsumas as candle holders for a Hallowe’en dinner party. Hollowed out by a patient child, large satsumas and oranges can be made into mini hanging lanterns with birthday candles inside to illuminate them.
Muffins and biscuits decorated with spiders’ webs make good food for a children’s Hallowe’en party and making them is a good pre-dooking activity. Cover homemade or bought biscuits with a lurid coloured icing, then use a bought tube of black icing (available in supermarkets as part of a set of Supercook icing tubes) to make concentric circles on top. Draw a knife outward from the centre of the biscuit through the circles and you have a spider’s web. The same effect can be achieved with melted white and dark chocolate.
Star, moon, witch’s hat and broomstick-shaped biscuits are a good creative project to leave mothers with a self-righteous glow and can be doled out to guisers. Of course, any guisers who come to my house carrying proper turnip lanterns will be more lavishly rewarded with cash, ghost-shaped lollies and chocolate Hallowe’en goodies wrapped in pumpkin-coloured tin foil.