Traditional Halloween Barmbrack

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).

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4 Responses to “Traditional Halloween Barmbrack”

  1. Póló Says:

    Thanks for reminding me of some of the items, other than the ring, which appear in the barmbrack (or barnbrack as we used to know it).

    I had totally forgotten the pea and the cloth, which I think are the only two extras I experienced myself.

  2. Ida Milne Says:

    Lisa, we put all of the above, wrapped in butter paper, into colcannon. On the subject of colcannon, every region seems to have a different version. The Dublin one seems to be kale and potatoes, boiled separately and then mixed together with milk and butter. The (scrumptious) one I grew up with my mother tells me was taught to her by her mother-in-law, and was only used in a small area of north county Wexford, between Bunclody and Ferns. It’s layers of parsnip, potatoes, white cabbage and onions, with salt and white pepper, cooked with a small amount of water, covered in a hat of greaseproof paper tied with string and simmered at a very low heat for a couple of hours, then piled onto plates with the surprises (usually carefully chosen to start some fun) and a large knob of butter in the centre. It and barmbrack (also shop bought, which was considered a luxury) were the only foods we had or wanted on Hallowe’en until we came back from the Black Men outing, which some people now call trick or treating. Black or bogeymen were spirit creatures, used to persuade children to behave. As in “Get into bed, or the bogeymen will come for you.” The Irish term we used was bairin breac. Good luck with yours!

  3. Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh Says:

    I believe a small pinch of clay (wrapped in something I suppose) indicated that whoever got that would be dead within the year.

  4. Says:

    I was curious if you ever thought of changing the structure of your blog?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2
    pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

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