Like the other Cross Quarter Days folks who observe the Celtic inspired Wheel of the Year celebrate, Samhain, too, is linked to agriculture. Imbolc was when the ewes, the female sheep, lactated; Beltane when the forces of fertility were at their peak and the crops began to grow for real; and Lughnasadh was about games and trade, but all that in memory of a Goddess giving her life for making Ireland a agricultural paradise. And Samhain, this fourth, or first, or both, seasonal marker is linked to … death.
In more than one ways.
Most are aware that the particular group of ancient Europeans tribes we call “the Celts” have celebrated the departed at Samhain. The story of Fionn mac Cumhail, for example, tells us when he slayed the fire breather Aillen, who burned down Tara (Teamhair na Rí)every Samhain, where the Irish high king held a great feast.
According to another tale, King Ailill held a feast in honour of the dead at his court in Connaught on Samhain, challenging his warriors to a trick. He promised an award to the hero who would bind a wicker twig around a hanged man’s leg, despite the demons lurking in the veil of the mist outside.
People would leave food for their family members, who deceased in the year past, on their door steps, guiding their souls with a light in a hallowed out turnip. Honoring, and feasting with, the dead was simply the tradition at that time of year.
But that has nothing to do with agriculture. So what has?
The Sam in Samhain is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European *semo, whence words like summer or Sommer (Germ.) come. The Gaullish Calendar of Coligny places a “three nights of Samonios” at the beginning of Summer. With that in mind, some belief that Samhain somehow relates summer, and therefore, being when it takes place in the course of the year, at the End of Summer.
For an agricultural society, that time of year always meant that the harvest has been brought in, by now even the root vegetables, and the life stock is back in the stables. The fields, nature, has, for all intense and purposes, died. Which could just as well be viewed as a correlation, if not a causality, for celebrating the departed of the human realm at the same time.
And, for farmers, that transition into the dark, cold half of the year had another important implication. Considering that, in terms of harvest and stock piles of flour, fruit, and vegetables, this was it until next spring, there was nothing else to be added to the corn stores, the farmers had to take a tough decision: with which of their life stock are they willing to share their limited food supplies, and which ones would be too expensive, too risky to feed through winter. What certainly went into the equation was whether or not the animals could produce something aside from their potential to provide meat; eggs next spring for example, or milk (less than in summer, but still). Or, were some pregnant and would produce offspring in late winter, i.e. the sheep, thus increasing overall life stock, and giving extra milk? Those were the farm animals that were kept over the winter months, even if that was costly.
Others were less lucky. Geese and ducks, and particularly pigs needed a lot of food, but didn’t provide anything ongoing to the family. So, death came to them, in the spirit of this particular time of year, in the form of slaughter. This was not so much driven by the gusto for meat, but a hard calculation. What are we, the human family, willing to sacrifice – after all, life stock meant not only security, but also wealth and prestige – to ensure our own survival. Each animal’s fate was weighed, their lives not inconsiderately terminated. But something had to give.
Interestingly enough, two traditions survived from this behavior. One into the feudal era, were life stock was given, and taken, as tax payments in lieu of cash. And then it was the nobility who feasted on the slaughtered animals.
And the second is still observed at least in Austria, a goose feasting day on November 11th, adopted by the Catholic Church as St. Martin’s Day. When we go to a restaurant on that day and indulge on fatty goose with red cabbage, bread dumplings, and lots of schnaps (to help with the digestion of that all), we do, in fact span a long arch to our farming ancestors, honouring their life choices, whether or not we are actually aware of it.
But it’s worth it. So much so, that I thought I’m going to share a recipe for a simpler to make, but still delicious Samhain feast here:
4 Goose drum sticks, 500g/2lb each
2 breasts of the Barbary Duck
Ground black pepper
½ l (2 cups) water For the lentils
2 cans of lentils (200 g each)
4 Slices bacon
1 Tbsp Tomato paste
1 White onion
1 Tbsp Flour
Hoarsly ground black pepper
1/8 ltr / 1/4 cup beef or chicken stock
Goose Drum Sticks – Breast of the Barbary Duck
Heat the oven to 400 F (180 C). Season the goose drum sticks with mugwort, salt, and pepper, stack in a large, deep baking pan and add some water. Squish the juniper berries and add them with the bay leaves to the water. Bake for 2 hours. Occasionally, souse with the liquid in the baking pan.
The breast of the Barbary duck is a little simpler to make, and much faster:
For the bacon lentils, melt butter in a medium saucepan; add the finely chopped onions and sauté until glassy. Dust the flour in and stir. Salt, pepper, and pour the soup in. Add the lentils including the liquid and the slices of bacon. Stir in the tomato paste. Chop up the anchovies and mix into the lentils, together with the capers and a dash of vinegar. Sauté for 5 minutes – the bacon should be soft.
If you chose the goose legs, serve one per person, with some of the de-greased baking juice.
Or pour the juice of the Barbary duck over the pieces.
Serve either one with a serving spoon full of lentils.