If the depleted flour supplies at my local supermarket are anything to go by, people are still doing a lot of baking and bread-making. It’s forever since I made bread and my baking repertoire is limited. One thing I do often bake though is barmbrack a.k.a. Irish tea loaf or tea brack. Its Irish language name is báirín breac which translates as speckled bread. And it was once reserved for holidays and high days, especially Halloween.
A precursor to Halloween, the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (the end of summer) marked the conclusion of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. During Samhain barriers between the physical world and the realm of the spirits became porous. It was a time of danger, a time charged with fear. And a time of rituals and practices designed to counter supernatural threats.
A rich, slightly moist fruit loaf that goes brilliantly with a cup of tea—or a tot of whisky—barmbrack recipes tend to be flexible. The one I use is from The Australian Women’s Weekly Best Ever Recipes, which I bought when I lived in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in the 1990s. That cookbook calls it Fruit Loaf, and as you can see from the photo, over the years I’ve added my own splotches, notes and alterations. I’ve reduced the quantity of sugar, for example, (dried fruit has its own sweetness) and swapped brandy for whisky.
‘Maria looked forward to her evening out. The kitchen was spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers. The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea.’
The quote is from Clay by James Joyce, a short story from his collection Dubliners, published in 1914.
Barmbrack comes studded with surprises. Traditionally bakers mixed tokens into the batter. Discover the pea (or bean) in your slice and you’re heading for singledom, while the finder of the ring can expect to be married within the year. Find a coin and look forward to a prosperous future—unlike the person who bites into a piece of cloth. They face hard times.
Raisins and sultanas are essential, but otherwise it’s up to you. I like dates, mixed citrus peel and the tang of currants. Some recipes call for glacé cherries, which look pretty, but I prefer my loaf without. The recipe I use adds chopped walnuts, others chopped almonds. Again, up to you. The main thing with whatever dried fruit combination you go for, is that you soak it in strong black tea, preferably overnight.
I’m not much of a spirits drinker, but I’ve got a heavy hand when it comes to the whisky. My Women’s Weekly recipe lists one tablespoon of brandy. A few barmbracks ago, and with no brandy in the house, I turned to a long-unopened gift, a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky. Splash in a generous ¼ cup. Given the loaf’s Irish ancestry I should probably use Irish whiskey with its additional ‘e’ but once cooked, I doubt anyone will be able to tell the difference.
Before chemical raising agents were available, barmbracks would have been leavened with yeast. Modern recipes use baking powder or self-raising flour. Some recipes suggest nutmeg or a pinch of mixed spice. And happily for anyone on a low-cholesterol diet, this is a fatless cake. It contains no butter, margarine or oil, and only a single egg. Although slices are generally buttered, a good barmbrack is moist enough to enjoy plain.
Be careful not to overbake or you’ll end up with a dry loaf. If the top looks to be going too dark towards the end of its time in the oven, cover it with foil. Once cool, resist—if you can—the temptation to eat it immediately. Wrap your barmbrack in layers of baking paper and alfoil and keep for a day or two before cutting into it.
A slice of Irish tea loaf, a cup of tea, a good book. One of life’s—and lockdown’s—deep pleasures.
Here’s James Joyce again:
‘When the cook told her everything was ready she went into the women’s room and began to pull the big bell. In a few minutes the women began to come in by twos and threes, wiping their steaming hands in their petticoats and pulling down the sleeves of their blouses over their red steaming arms. They settled down before their huge mugs which the cook and the dummy filled up with hot tea, already mixed with milk and sugar in huge tin cans. Maria superintended the distribution of the barmbrack and saw that every woman got her four slices. There was a great deal of laughing and joking during the meal … ’
Wow. Four slices!