By Lisa Marie Griffith
I am spending this Halloween with my family and nieces in Cork and wanted to resurrect one of my favourite Halloween traditions-the Barmbrack. For the non-Irish the Barmbrack, or tea brack, is traditionally consumed on Halloween with a number of items hidden in the cake which reveal the fortune of those who consume it. According to Darina Allen (in Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course) ‘Barm’ comes from an old English word ‘Beorma’ which means yeasted or fermented liquor and ‘brack’ is the Irish for ‘speckled’. Growing up in Ireland in the 80s I did not consume the traditional home-made Barmbrack- the shop bought was always more highly prized than the home-made and so like many homes we sat around a shop bought brack that was inferior in a number of ways. Only one item, the ring, was ever included and this item was meant to symbolise that the person would marry shortly. Like the free toy in a cereal box all four of us kids fought for it (although I am sure none of us had any interest in getting married at that point)!
Despite, or perhaps because of this, I wanted to try to introduce my nieces to the traditional and proper Irish concept of the Barmbrack and I thought I would share my brack findings with you. The Barmbrack is essentially a simple fruit bread, but traditionally the dried fruit is soaked overnight in tea to give it an added flavour. There are a number of different items which are included and which I am sure varied widely. Here are some of the ones that I have come across. I have mentioned the ‘gold’ (just not plastic) ring which meant that a person would marry shortly but I was amazed at how many I found and how much they indicate about Irish social history: A pea meant that a person would not marry that year, a small coin indicated that a person would be rich, a piece of cloth meant a person would be poor, a matchstick indicated that a man would beat his wife (I have not found any example of where this could mean a wife might beat her husband) or have an unhappy marriage, a thimble suggested someone would be a spinster, a button that they would be a bachelor, holy medal suggested they were destined for a life in the church. The future marriage and wealth status was clearly a preoccupation! Does anyone have any other items which were traditionally included? There will be quite a few of us so I am eager to add as many items as I can.
Just like the list of items you can include there are also a list of ingredients you can add to the brack. I am a basic enough chef so I always prefer the simple recipes to the more complicated. Darina Allen’s recipe for Barmbrack can be found here or (at little more complicated but I am a big fan) Ruth Isabel Ross, author of Breads & Baking: the Irish Kitchen, has a recipe for Barmbrack here (just don’t blame me if either go wrong or someone chokes on one of the items).