Monday, 2 November 2015

Haunted Castles and Romano Peppers

Dear Nigel,

If you want to do Halloween in style, then you could not do better than visiting a real live Haunted Castle in the wilds of Northumberland. You enter along a drive lined with rows of burning torches and have to leave your car far away amongst the trees and arrive on foot armed only with a dodgy old torch.

I was just so thankful at having found 'something' - and so not have to go out trick or treating (the whole idea of which was causing me to lose sleep at night), that I would have been quite happy if it had been a bran tub of apple bobbing and a few pumpkins dotted about.

So, having driven for six hours to my parents house for a short break, I had an hour or so to grab a cup of tea and then pour myself into a sexy witch's costume (why the sexy?), complete with massive hooped skirt, and try and negotiate the gears in the landrover whilst driving another 40 minutes with said hooped skirt on (floating across the gear stick and anchoring itself firmly under the steering wheel); travelling across darkened hillsides and even further north to a castle almost on the border with Scotland. (I'm sure the British Army don't encounter these sort of logistical problems on their manoeuvres.)

Chillingham Castle markets itself as the 'most haunted castle in England'. It has been on numerous television programmes and slept in by several celebrities with a death wish, quite possibly. It stands resplendent in a suitably dimmed glow, the shadows falling off the crossed axes and sabres on the walls, and huge log fires burning in the oversized grates.

If I had been feeling a little over-dressed, perhaps, and that dressing up was not really for me, I need not have worried. The whole cast of the Adams family were there. Families seem to come as posed tableaux, siting themselves against suitable backdrops to pose for greatest effect. My two had opted to discard the lovely ready-made costumes from previous years and create 'outfits' of their own from a motley assortment of stuff they put together themselves in a Blue Peter circa 1970's sort of way. They were happy with the effect, anyway, and I was just pleased that it was relatively dark and I was unlikely to bump into anyone I knew.

They listened, entranced, to an old man telling tales of the ghosts who live in the castle alongside the family. Molly had already spotted the ghost in an upstairs window the minute we arrived and wouldn't be encouraged otherwise. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. We  feasted in the old kitchen by the fire, chased pumpkins around the darkened maze outside and finished the evening off with fireworks, returning back exhausted and complete.

I heave my heavy copper saute pan onto the stove, now that I am back safe home, and mellow a heap of sliced red and yellow onions in a little olive oil. On the chopping board are a couple of Romano peppers (one only in your recipe, but that isn't enough for me). I am making a rich vegetable medley of 'Chickpea, courgette and pepper stew' (page 391) to chase the darkness away this night. The Romano peppers are like witches fingers and I hack them into largish chunks, removing the seeds, and let them soften with the onions. It seems like a suitable dish for a Halloween or Bonfire night; something to mop up with a wedge of ciabatta. An easy dish, perhaps, to take outside in a wide-topped flask and dispense onto bowls in the dark; the witches fingers pointing out from their mini cauldrons, beckoning.

You say, 'It is the sweet pan juices that make this dish worth making.' I found that cutting the Romano peppers into larger chunks than normal left them more succulent as they softened, and for biting into.

I'm pleased to read that you are as curmudgeonly as me in regards to this Halloween trick or treating. 'Nowadays it's all screaming groups in fancy dress ringing on doorbells. Trick or treat has become little more than licensed harassment. Parties bang on into the night. Crassness and commercialism have replaced the magic of a night where spirits were free to haunt.'

I remember Halloween as being little more than baking potatoes in a fire outside and carrying turnip lanterns round. My mum tells me that turnip lanterns were a throw back from the war when that was what was available. She merely remembers them being extremely hard to carve when we were small and there being lots of apple-based activities.

You remember 'the old Halloween, when hollowed-out pumpkins glowed ghoulishly from darkened windows, was a night I rather enjoyed. Walking along London's Georgian streets, the occasional candlelit gourd to speed us on our way home to drink pumpkin soup and watch a crackly black and white Frankenstein movie, was something I looked forward to.'

Perhaps this is a night that needs reclaiming in the way that many of us are starting to at Christmastime. The excesses of chocolate deserts and rich food of a few years back are gradually being replaced, I believe, by slightly less excess, more comfort-driven and often less traditional fare - or at least a new take on the old traditional. There is more emphasis on the company than the table display and people are coming home to the idea of a simpler Christmas being actually nicer. Perhaps Halloween, too, is due for a remake; so that it becomes something to look forward to once more.

I agree with you that 'pumpkin only really works for me when it is accompanied by a savoury element.' I don't really care for the sweet pumpkin tarts and pastries available.
'Best of all is when the squash's sugary flesh comes glowing from the oven, sticky with the caramelised juices of a piece of roast pork...A glowing reminder of a night when,once upon a time, our imagination and candlelight were enough.'

Just so.


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