It’s that time of the year again. And you know exactly which one I’m writing about just by reading the title, don’t you? Can you feel the jitters? It’s finally the time when people around the world embark on their weekend journey to pick out pumpkins just to get home and carve them with gruesome and spooky faces. Where creepy lanterns hang on porches, and light up horror-decorated yards. The time where children (and adults) show off their scariest costumes and head out into the streets to go trick-or-treating.
But where did all of this originate? Halloween dates back 2,000 years ago to Samhain, an old and traditional Gaelic festival that happened every year on October 31st to celebrate the end of the harvest season, and welcome the beginning of winter. Through time, this tradition merged with the Christian celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day—celebrated on November 1st and 2nd respectively—and gave birth to what we now know as All Hallow’s Eve.
In the U.S. you’ll find kids knocking on doors with themed bags in their hands, filled to the brim with packaged candy and just a whole lot of sugar that’s sure to keep them up all night long. But what about everywhere else in the world? Today I’ll show you some other countries that, in their own ways and cultures, celebrate this holiday with unique treats. So get your taste buds ready to read about some delicious Halloween culinary dishes and baked goodies that won’t involve any type of pumpkin.
On October 31st, if you happen to be strolling through the streets of Ireland, you’ll surely catch the wafting smell of freshly baked barmbrack—báirín breac in Irish—filling the homes of many families. This easy and quick treat consists of a sweet, cake-like loaf of bread usually filled with pieces of dried fruit that have been soaked overnight in hot tea (and sometimes whiskey). And there’s no better way to enjoy it than with a good amount of butter and a cuppa. But the real treat is what you’ll discover inside this loaf.
With each slice you might find various objects that were baked into the bread, each one of them symbolizing a fate for the year to come. And while a coin might mean wealth, a token like a small piece of cloth indicates that you should live inexpensively for the next 12 months.
Pan de Muerto, Mexico
This special treat might be the most well-known from all around the world—well, right after the famous candy apples. The pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, is a soft, sweet Mexican type of bread roll that’s not for everyday consumption. It’s a treat that’s associated with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, a festival that can last a day or even a week during the month of November.
The bread of the dead originates all the way back to pre-Hispanic ceremonies, given in honor of Huizilopochtli, the god of war of the Mexican Aztec mythology. During these celebrations, people cooked this bread made out of amaranth to symbolize the figure of the warrior god who was sacrificed, and then shared and eaten by the people.
Nowadays, this type of bread is still baked all over homes and bakeries in the most traditional towns and neighborhoods. Traditionally, one of the pieces of the pan de muerto is placed on an altar by each family to pay tribute to the deceased.
Huesos de Santo, Spain
Even though the name might not be very appealing, this Spanish treat is as sweet as they come. Huesos de santo, otherwise known as holy bones or saints bones, are a sweet, skeletal replica of a hollow bone. On November 1st, pastry chefs all around Spain create this treat using a thin sheet of white marzipan paste by forming it into a tube, and piping a gooey paste of egg yolk and sugar into it to represent the bone marrow.
These holy bone treats traditionally serve as a reminder of the relic collections preserved in ancient churches, a symbol of their ancestors.
Decorated guagua de pan from Ecuador by @maycita89
Guagua de Pan, Ecuador
One of the greatest traditions celebrated in Ecuador during the month of October is the baking of guaguas de pan. Shaped like small bread children or infants, these sweet rolls are a crucial part of the Day of the Dead tradition and may even be exchanged as gifts between families and friends.
Just like many ancient traditions, the guagua de pan originated from an ancient tribe that lived deep in the area around Quito, during the centuries before the Spanish colonization. This tribe was known for making tiny human-like figures from a corn-based dough as a way to honor their deceased ancestors. With time, this tradition ended up intermixing with traditions from the Spanish colonists, leading to guagua de pan being baked and enjoyed in the weeks before November 2nd, the Day of the Dead or Día de los Difuntos in Ecuador.
All around the different regions of Ecuador you’ll find different takes on these treats, from sweeter rolls eaten as a dessert to plainer bread dough figures. But as per tradition, the largest loaves end up being placed on the graves of their deceased loved ones on the following day, alongside other food offerings.
Bonfire toffee, United Kingdom
Remember, remember, (what it used to be like on) the 5th of November. Bonfire toffee is a traditional Halloween treat all across the UK, but it’s also widely celebrated during Guy Fawkes Night. A night when English families light up bonfires, fireworks and commemorate the execution of Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up England's parliament building. Scary, huh? This treat consists of a darker, spooky, brown-like toffee that’s essentially made from black treacle, butter and sugar. And trust me, I’ve tried it and it’s delicious. Especially if it’s homemade, but you’ll have to gather a bit of strength to break it into small pieces.
Pan dei Morti, Italy
Also known as fave dei morti, or beans of the dead, due mostly to their oval shape, these traditional Italian cookies are prepared for the Day of the Dead—or as Italians call it, the Commemorazione dei Defunti. Followed by All Saint’s Day, or Ognissanti, these two holy days are meant for Italians to honor the souls of their deceased relatives and loved ones. Many believe that on those dates, the spirits return to Earth to visit those they left behind.
The pan dei morti is usually made from leftover sweets or other sweet cookies to represent the transmutation from the old into the new. Add dried fruit and figs, two fundamental ingredients that were present in pre-Christian offerings to the deceased. And finally the Cacao, a more modern addition that brings a dark brownish color to these sweets, making them resemble the earth in a burial ground. You’ll find many variations of this treat all around Italy since each region has its own unique take on it.