Few would dispute that Oxford is not quite a gastronomic paradise. True, most occasions are catered for – upmarket for family visits, deep-fried goodness for drunken hunger pangs, 2-4-1 high-street chains for first dates, caffeine providers for essay crises, and, of course, the £2.50 Tesco meal deal for the days before the student loan comes through. But, in all honesty, save for a few real gems like Edamame, Al-Shami, the up-and-coming Turl Street Kitchen – little in Oxford is particularly memorable (unless you decide to sign up for Accenture’s Graduate Evening at Raymond Blanc’s two-Michelin starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the Oxfordshire countryside…)
I’m going to try a new approach. What we lack in great restaurants we compensate for with a great university. So each week, I’ll choose a college and somehow (and probably quite tenuously) link it to something culinary and give you a recipe to have a go at. Where to start? I realise that not many of us – and possibly none reading this column – will ever have much to do with All Souls College. If you do want to, I’d suggest you stop reading this immediately and seek out something rather more intellectually challenging. But it’s the first college alphabetically, and, conveniently, the feast of All Souls passed just this Wednesday.
Therefore, I thought we’d take a look at some of the culinary traditions of All Souls’ Day. The most famous celebrations happen in South America and, specifically, Mexico. ‘Mission Burritos!’ I hear you cry. Alas, not this week. A national holiday in all but law in Mexico, the 1st November is the Día de los inocentes, devoted to deceased children, and the 2nd is the Día de los difuntos, devoted to all perished souls.
The feast stretches back hundreds of years to an Aztec celebration devoted to the goddess Mictecacihuatl and became Christianized after the arrival of Europeans. Altars are built to honour the dead, cemeteries are visited, and the deceased souls are presented with ofrendas of their favourite foods. Poems are written and sugar and chocolate skulls are given as gifts, with the name of the recipient inscribed on the forehead.
Pan de muerto, a rich sweetened bread formed into various shapes and flavoured with orange blossom water and anise seeds, is the best-known culinary product. Bone-shaped pieces of dough are attached in a circle on top, representing the cyclical nature of life, along with a tear-drop shape to symbolise sorrow. Two years ago, the Mexican city of Uruapan made it into the Guinness Book of Records for creating the world’s largest pan de muerto, a 160kg monster, 2.7m wide and 3m high (the city, incidentally, also holds the record for the narrowest house in the world and the largest guacamole in the world).
In Ecuador, the bread is formed into guaguas de pan, slightly creepy child-shaped figurines (guagua is Quechua for ‘child’). Filled with sweet and savoury fillings, they are dipped into colada morada, an exotic-looking deep purple drink made with purple cornflour and several fruits and spices.
Guatemala, too has its own tradition of fiambre, a salad made of up to 50 ingredients, supposedly first created when the ofrendas of each deceased person’s favourite foods got mixed together…I can’t say it looks too appetising, but I suppose at least it has something for everyone.
Having been in Ecuador in 2009 for the feast, I would have like to include a recipe for one of its dishes. Unfortunately, guaguas de pan are as tasteless as they are creepy. And it may have just been the street seller I bought it from, or the ice used to cool it, but my one taste of colada morada had less than happy consequences; and good luck finding purplecornflour, the babacofruit (also known as ‘champagne fruit’), or the spices ishpingo and arrayán, in Oxford…
Since Pan de muerto is little more than white bread with a couple of spices, some sugar and some butter, I’ve opted for a recipe for calabaza en tacha; for which Mexicans grow huge special pumpkins at this time of year. It’s a sweet treat, and, who knows, you might even get find the leftovers from Hallowe’en reduced if you pop on down to Tesco tonight.
CALABAZA EN TACHA (CANDIED PUMPKIN)
This can be eaten as a snack on its own, or with ice-cream. It is eaten for breakfast in Mexico, but I would reserve such a sugar overload only for when you know you have a mammoth essay to write in the next few hours.
1 cinnamon stick
Zest and juice of half an orange
400g dark brown sugar
Cut the pumpkin into 2cm cubes, removing the seeds and stringy parts. You can leave the skin on.
Put all the other ingredients in a saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
Reduce the syrup to a simmer and carefully add the pumpkin pieces.
Leave on a low simmer for one to one-and-a-half hours, or until the pumpkin pieces are tender when pierced with a fork.
Remove from the heat and take the pumpkin out with a slotted spoon.
Serve hot or cold, drizzled with some of the remaining spiced syrup.