Also called barmbrack, barnbreak, bairín breac or bairínbreac, this is the Irish cousin of the Welsh bara brith, with both names meaning “speckled bread” – bread dotted with speckles of dried fruit.
It’s traditionally eaten on Halloween as well as on 1 February, the feast day of one of Ireland’s patron saints: Brigid or Brigit of Kaldare.* This is one of those Christian feast days, in combination with Candlemas on 2 February, that was a rebranding of an older, pagan festival: Imbolc, the mid-point between winter and spring equinoxes. Indeed, although Brigid was nominally a historical figure who lived in the 5th-5th centuries, there was also an older, Irish, or Celtic goddess of the same name and the feast effectively amalgamates the two.
It’s not a big feast day for us Brits, but as Fran and myself both have Irish great-grandparents, it’s a good excuse to try a recipe.
Barm brack is one of the breads that originally would have been made with yeast from brewing, but these days you can either make a yeasted version, ie more an enriched bread, or a chemically leavened one, ie more a fruit cake. Several months ago I accidentally bought an 8kg sack of self-raising flour, so as much as I like yeasted breads, I made the latter, as part of my efforts to use it up.
If it’s not St Brigid’s Day or Imbolc or Halloween, don’t worry – you can still make this brack, and just call it a tea brack, a relative of the other similar baked goods known as tea breads in English.
Oh, and while researching recipes, I found some that were adamant you had to bake in a round tin, some that were free-form (yeasted) loaves, though the consensus seems to be to bake in a loaf tin, which makes sense as you can then slice it and spread it with butter and eat it for afternoon tea.
250g dried fruit – currants, raisins, sultanas or a mixture
300g black tea. We used Earl Grey for that citrus tang from the bergamot
1 medium egg
50g butter, melted
150g sugar, soft brown
270g self-raising flour, or 260g plain/all-purpose flour sifted together with 2 tsp baking powder
Some spice, to taste
50g candied peel
1. Put the currants/raisins/sultanas in a bowl and pour over the hot tea. Leave it for a few hours, or overnight, so the fruit plumps up a bit.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C, or 160 if you have a fan. That said, my fan oven is pretty puny, so 170C seemed OK. Basically, a medium oven.
3. Grease and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin.
4. Put the flour in a large bowl, add a bit of spice if you like (I used cinnamon, a few grates of nutmeg and a pinch of black pepper, which is probably unconventional, but seemed appropriate) and the salt.
5. Add the sugar. I used soft brown and a bit of dark muscovado that was hanging around.
6. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and stir to combine. The resulting batter will be pretty sloppy.
7. Pour into the tin and bake for about one and a quarter hours, turning down the heat slightly and covering the loaf with foil if the top is browning too much.
8. When it comes out of the oven, you can brush it with a simple sugar syrup made from a few tablespoons of water and a few of sugar, dissolved then boiled quickly.
9. Turn out, allow to cool and serve.
Funny, I never much liked fruit breads and cakes, but I’m increasingly enjoying them, and this was lovely. We ate several slices, sitting around with our friend Liv, drinking gallons of tea. I was tempted to open an ale, as one source I read insists you have it with ale; which would make sense, but only a rich, malty ale, without too much newfangled hoppiness.
I’ll make a yeasted version come Halloween, but we’ve got spring and summer first, so I’m not wishing the year away on this cold late winter day.
* Her name is also spelled Bride, and some suggest Saint Bride’s Well, and Bridewell Palace (mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and St Bride’s Church in the City of London take their name from her too, possibly via Irish monks who came to England to convert the heathens.