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Eating For Samhain: Barmbrack

In our new series, we look at the foods that make an Irish Halloween special.

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Autumn has finally arrived, which for us Irish folk means that Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) is nearly here. While many people associate it with ghost stories and trick-or-treating, Irish people have a unique relationship with Halloween. 

Samhain is an old Irish festival that stems from the time of myths and legends, of fairies, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the King of Tara. Thought to be descended for Pagan rituals, Samhain, which is one of the four Gaelic festivals of the year, takes place on October 31st.

It was thought that during Samhain, the veil between worlds was thinned so that fairies (the Aos Sí) and spirits could return to the world of the living from the Otherworld. Irish people held feasts to beckon their loved ones home while lighting bonfires for protection from evil spirits.

Food was a massively important part of Oíche Shamhna. Apples were associated with the Otherworld and immortality, while hazelnuts brought divine wisdom, so both were used in fortune-telling rituals. Certain particular dishes were particularly associated with Samhain, so over the next few weeks, we will be exploring these foods in more details. Last week we looked at colcannon; today we will be examining barmbrack.

Getty Images.
Getty Images.

What Is Barm Brack?

Similar to the Welsh bara brith, barmbrack is a tea loaf packed with dried fruit. Known as bairín breac in Irish, which means speckled loaf, the fruit in this loaf was thought of as indulgent and luxurious in previous years when dried fruit was a rarity due to its cost. It was often made with strong black tea, instead of milk or water, so it is also known as a tea loaf. 

Usually made in flattened rounds and served toasted with lots of Irish butter and tea (of course!), barmbrack is similar to colcannon in that it is thought to predict what the year ahead holds for those who eat it. 

Traditionally, a variety of different items were baked into barmbrack and if you were the lucky one to find a trinket, you would know what was in store for you over the following year. Usually, a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin and a ring were baked into the loaf, but we've also seen recipes that call for a matchstick or a thimble. 

Each of these trinkets symbolised a different future: the pea meant that you would not be married in the coming year, while the ring meant you would soon be wed, the stick meant that you would be unhappily married or in arguments, the cloth meant you would be poor and the coin would indicate good fortune and riches. Some families would include a medallion of the Virgin Mary, which would that the person would join the nuns or priesthood; however, this tradition is no longer widely practised.

Nowadays, barmbrack is commercially sold with a plastic ring – so diners don't lose their teeth! – and occasionally a plastic coin. The elimination of the other charms occurred due to current health and safety regulations, but if you make it at home, you can still include them.

Barmbrack. Image by @pepperazzi_ie on Instagram.
Barmbrack. Image by @pepperazzi_ie on Instagram.

Traditional Irish Barmbrack Recipe

Makes one 900g loaf

Makes one 900g loaf

  • 375g packet of fruit mix
  • 300ml cold tea
  • 50ml of whiskey, optional
  • 225g plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 125g light brown sugar or caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1 egg, beaten

Method:

  1. Soak the fruit overnight in the tea and whiskey.
  2. Preheat an oven to 170ºC/325ºF/Gas mark 3. Grease a loaf tin.
  3. Combine together the dry ingredients, then mix in the beaten egg. Add a little of the tea and whiskey mix, bit by bit, un a wet dough is achieved. 
  4. Stir through the fruit and any trinkets you want to add.
  5. Pour into the loaf tin, bake for one hour. Cool and serve toasted with lashings of butter.