The Day of the Dead

In Mexico one of the most important festivals of the year is The Day of the Dead. It coincides with our All Saints and All Souls Day in early November. Death has played a central role in Mexican life and religion for thousands of years, but somehow it is not viewed with such finality as it is in our culture.

Life and death are inseparable and reflect a dualistic view as represented by the gods Quetzalcoatl, the God of life and the earth, and Mitchtlantecuhtli, the God of the Dead and the Underworld.
Following the conquest of Mexico in 1579, the Spaniards sought to convert Mexico’s indigenous people to Christianity, but instead the Christian celebrations gradually became overtaken by Mexico’s ancient spirituality.
On the Day of the Dead, throngs of Mexicans pour into cemeteries at midnight, carrying picnics to share with their dearly beloved deceased relatives and friends. Increasingly, visitors from all over the world join them to witness this beautifully macabre and ancient ritual. 

In Oaxaca, a colonial city about an hour south of Mexico City by plane, the celebrations begin weeks before The Day of the Dead. The market and street stalls are piled high with sugar and chocolate skulls (calacas) decorated in brightly coloured icing. A special anise flavoured bread embellished with symbolic images called pan de meurtos is baked. Figurines of painted skeletons engaged in a whole range of human behaviour, from drinking mescal, to watching tv, playing soccer, driving sports cars, or playing in mariachi bands, are snapped up by locals and tourists alike – All very morbid and macabre one might think, but in fact it all adds to the air of celebration.
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In every home altars and shrines are decorated with statues, flowers, ornate candles, food, and personal items so that the appropriate spirit will find its way home during the special days.

Families and friends prepare their ‘ofrenda’ (the adornment of a grave prior to the all -night vigil). Some people do evocative sand paintings, others construct bamboo fences around graves which are then decorated with flowers, fruit and colourful sugar skulls and sometimes bottles of tequila and Coca cola. Cocks combs and the marigold like campasuchil flowers adorn the graves. The strewn petals make vibrant orange paths to the graveyard. Some Indians believe that the bright orange colour and the pungent perfume of the flowers attract the spirits, and that the ancient incense called copal which is burnt by the graveside and around household altars also entices and nourishes the spirits.

In kitchens all over Mexico, women painstakingly cook the favourite foods of their loved ones. Posole and turkey mole are traditional favourites. Come midnight families enter the cemeteries laden with food, drink, flowers, candles, blankets and treasured mementoes of their lost ones. They lovingly lay baskets and pottery dishes full of tasty food on the graves for their dear departed with glasses of water to allay the thirst. Come morning the living share the food.

The entire area is bathed in the light of a forest of candles which guide the spirits to their waiting family and friends who sit wrapped in blankets and ponchos around the graves. As the night moves on they tell stories, remember and drink toasts to their loved ones. A mariachi band plays lively music, the mood seems festive but somewhat subdued. 

There are of course similarities with Hallowe’en but our celebrations seem on one hand darker, but on the other more frivolous as the children play trick or treat and dress up as witches, monsters, vampires and ghosts to terrorise their friends and neighbours.


Serves 8 approx.
Colcannon was one of the festive dishes eaten at Hallowe’en. Songs have been sung and poems have been written about Colcannon. This comfort food at its very best has now been 'discovered' and is often a feature on smart restaurant menus in London and New York. 
In Dublin parsnips were often added to colcannon, the proportion of parsnips to potato varied.

Did you ever eat colcannon
When 'twas made with yellow cream
And the kale and praties blended 
Like a picture in a dream?
Did you ever scoop a hole on top
To hold the melting lake
Of the clover-flavoured butter
Which your mother used to make?

450g (1lb) Savoy or spring cabbage
900g - 1.35kg (2-3lb) 'old' potatoes, e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks
250ml (8fl oz) approx. boiling milk
30g (1oz) scallion or spring onion, optional
salt and freshly ground pepper
55g (2oz) approx . butter

Scrub the potatoes, put them in a saucepan of cold water, add a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes are about half cooked, 15 minutes approx. for 'old' potatoes, strain off two-thirds of the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put onto a gentle heat and allow the potatoes to steam until they are cooked.

Remove the dark outer leaves from the cabbage. Wash the rest and cut into quarters, remove the core and cut finely across the grain. Boil in a little boiling water or bacon cooking water until soft. Drain, season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a little butter. When the potatoes are just cooked, put the milk, and the finely chopped scallions into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Pull the peel off the potatoes and discard, mash quickly while they are still warm and beat in enough boiling milk to make a fluffy puree. (If you have a large quantity, put the potatoes in the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade.) Then stir in the cooked cabbage and taste for seasoning. For perfection, serve immediately in a hot dish with a lump of butter melting in the centre.

Colcannon may be prepared ahead up to this point and reheated later in a moderate oven 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4, for 20-25 minutes approx. Cover while reheating so it doesn't get too crusty on top.

Hot Diggedy Dogs

This recipe from the November BBC Good Food Magazine really appealed to me as a suggestion for a Bonfire night party (lots of other great ideas in the magazine too.) Here the sausages and onions roast together in the oven. Ready in 30-40 minutes.
Makes 6 but can easily be doubled.
2 tablesp. sunflower oil
6 large pork sausages
1 large onion, sliced 
1 teasp. yellow mustard seeds
6 big flour tortillas
2 tablesp. tomato relish
paper napkins, to serve

Preheat the oven to fan 180C, conventional 200C/ gas 6.

Pour the oil into the roasting tin and put it in the oven for a couple of minutes to heat up. Add the sausages to the hot tin and roast for another 10 minutes. 

Push the sausages to the outer edges of the tin and scatter the sliced onion in the centre. Sprinkle the onion slices with the mustard seeds and some salt and pepper and turn them to coat in the hot oil at the bottom of the tin. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes until the sliced onions are golden and the sausages are completely cooked through.

Briefly heat the flour tortillas in the oven, microwave or in a dry frying pan to make them softer and easier to roll. Place a sausage and some onion on each one, top with a spoonful of relish and roll, folding the bottom over. Serve straight away, wrapped in paper napkins.
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Roasted Potato Wedges with Fire and Brimstone Sauce 
Another idea for the bonfire party!

2 lbs (900g) old potatoes, e.g. Golden Wonders, or Kerrs Pink.
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For dipping:
Fire and brimstone sauce and sour cream.
Preheat the oven to 200F/100C

Scrub the potatoes well. Cut into quarters or eights lengthwise depending on size. The pieces should be chunky rather than skinny. Put into a roasting tin, drizzle with a little olive oil, toss to coat, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. 

Roast for 20-30 minutes.
Serve with a bowl of fire and brimstone sauce and a bowl of sour cream to dip.

Fire and Brimstone Sauce

This great little sauce is terrific to serve with pangrilled chicken, pork or lamb. We also use it as a dipping sauce for potato wedges and all kinds of fried food especially chicken or fish goujons.
2-4 red chillies (medium-hot)
4 cloves garlic, crushed
225g (8oz) apricot jam
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
good pinch of salt

Deseed and roughly chop the chillies, then just whizz all the ingredients in a food processor. 
This sauce keeps for up to 2 weeks in a covered jam jar in the fridge.
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Foolproof Food

Hallow’Eves Apple and Cinnamon Pudding

Serves 4-6
12 lbs (675g) cooking apples
1 tablesp. water
3-4 ozs (85-110g) approx. sugar
1 teasp. cinnamon
For the Topping
2 ozs (55g) butter
2 ozs (55g) sugar
1 beaten egg, preferably free range
3 ozs (85g) self raising flour, sieved
1-2 tablesp. milk
1 pie dish 12 pint (900ml) capacity

Set the oven to 200C/400F/regulo 6.
Peel, core and slice the apples and put them in a heavy saucepan with the water and sugar, cover. Stew them gently until just soft, add the cinnaomon and then tip into a buttered pie dish.

Cream the butter until soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the beaten egg by degrees and beat well until completely incorporated. Sieve the flour and fold into the butter and egg mixture. Add about 1 tablespoon milk or enough to bring the mixture to dropping consistency. Spread this mixture gently over the apple.
Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the sponge mixture is firm to the touch in the centre. Sprinkle with castor sugar. Serve warm with home made custard or lightly whipped cream.
Hallow’Eves pudding is delicious made with rhubarb, gooseberries or a mixture of blackberry and apples or rhubarb and strawberries.
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Hot Tips
Slow Food West Cork ‘Celebrates the Pig’ on Sunday 2nd November – a chance to see how free-range pigs are reared, see smoking and processing, a talk on Irish pork by John McKenna of Bridgestone Guides and a feast of delicious dishes and wines. Full booking details from Clodagh McKenna 087-6831602  

Tesco kicks off search for the Nations Young Cook of the Year 2004.
Young chefs across the country should have their spatulas ready as Tesco Ireland, in association with Knorr, announce their hunt for the 2004 champion – open to 10-16 year olds. Ask your teacher, look out for the posters in Tesco stores, check out  cooking  or

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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