Janine Kennedy, our Canadian expat chef, shares her tips and recipes for classic Irish recipes along with stories of her life in Ireland. Last time it was Irish Pavlova. Today Janine tells us about the pagan version of Halloween in Ireland — Samhain — and shares her recipe for barmbrack, a tea loaf that is traditional for both eating and fortune-telling at this holiday.
On our farm here in Ireland, we have what’s known as a Ring Fort. To the untrained eye, it’s nothing but a circle of trees and overgrowth set among our otherwise rectangular fields.
Lots of farms in Ireland have a Ring Fort. They’re ancient dwellings dating back to before the Stone Age, in many cases, and because they’re circular in shape the past inhabitants were able to protect their community and livestock from intruders. The forts were also believed to be magical places, inhabited by the “little people” — or faeries — and were never touched or explored, which is why the fields were partitioned around them.
Today, not many farmers believe that Ring Forts are inhabited by faeries, but they still don’t touch them. Some, like my father-in-law, leave them alone because of their historical significance. Others are superstitious and believe bad luck will follow them and their farm if they disturb the space.
My father-in-law once told me a story about our Ring Fort. His father came home (which is the house where I live now) with a small comb. He said he found the comb at the Ring Fort and jokingly implied that “someone may come looking for it,” meaning the faeries might be upset that their home was disturbed. Later that night, someone saw the window open slightly, a small hand reach in and grab the comb, and gently close the window again.
Whether or not there’s an element of truth to this story, it’s a good example of Ireland’s passed-down oral history and a reminder of its pagan past. Like in Ireland, my home island of Cape Breton has a rich storytelling culture. I grew up listening to spooky stories and cautionary tales from the elders around my community, so I spend a lot of time plying my father-in-law with tea and cake in return for local lore.
Irish Samhain Traditions
With Ireland’s knack for spooky storytelling comes a whole host (no pun intended) of other Halloween, or, for those who still celebrate pagan holidays, Samhain traditions. Samhain is one of four seasonal holidays in the ancient Celtic religion. Many believe that Halloween was developed as the Christian version of Samhain — a day for celebrating the dear departed, and one of the few times of the year when the dead could cross over into our own world.
Until very recently, the Irish still maintained some Samhain traditions. People would leave small gifts of food for their departed loved ones, believing their family members would return home for a visit and expect hospitality. You can still find people who leave pans of milk out for the faeries at night, and places like the Ring Fort on our farm are never, ever disturbed.
Another tradition the Irish hold dear is the eating of barmbrack (or bairín breac, in Irish) at Halloween. Every shop has their own special recipe and everyone has their favourite place to buy theirs (if they don’t make it themselves). It’s a yeasted, fruit-laden tea loaf; delicious with a thick slab of creamery butter, but the Irish do more with this treat than eat.
The yearly loaf of barmbrack is part of a fortune telling game and another nod to Ireland’s pagan roots. There are various objects placed into the loaf prior to baking and they all have a different meaning for the person who finds them in their slice. In traditional barmbrack the following items would normally be found: a pea, a piece of cloth, a coin, a stick and a ring. Whoever picks the pea won’t marry within the year, the cloth means whoever picks it will live in poverty, and the stick symbolizes an unhappy marriage. If you find the coin you will enjoy a prosperous year and, finally, finding the ring means — you guessed it — wedding bells within the year!
These days you don’t need to worry about biting into a stick or a rag while eating barmbrack; most loaves are just for eating, not fortune-telling. That said, many will still have a ring hidden in there somewhere and it’s always fun to see who in the family will find it in their slice.
As I get nearer to my five-year anniversary in Ireland, I feel like I’m finally getting a grasp on the many peculiarities of Irish country living. The language, the customs and, yes, even the food culture took a while to grow on me. My kids recently received their Canadian citizenship and we’re heading to Cape Breton this Christmas, so I’m looking forward to teaching them some Canadian family traditions. In the meantime, I’m going to have a slice of this barmbrack with a hot cup of tea to celebrate Samhain — and yes, the girls and I will be leaving a pan of milk outside tonight for our “little friends” in the Ring Fort.
- 4 cups
- 1 pkg dry active yeast
- 1 Tbsp + ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 Tbsp butter + more for brushing on the loaves
- 1 cup milk
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup warm brewed tea
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp ground allspice
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 cup mixed dried fruit (currants, sultanas, cherries)
- 1 cup mixed citrus peel
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ + ½ cup water
- Juice from ½ lemon
- 2 Tbsp Irish Whiskey
- In the bowl of your stand mixer, dissolve the yeast and 1 Tbsp sugar into the warm tea. Let sit until the yeast is activated and bubbly.
- While you wait, heat the milk in a saucepan on the stove (do not bring to a boil; when the milk starts to steam it’s ready). Melt the 4 Tbsp of butter into the hot milk, then add the vanilla and all of the ground spices.
- Into the activated yeast, add the ⅓ cup of sugar and the egg. With the paddle attachment, mix these ingredients until just combined. Add the hot milk/spice mixture and give another good mix.
- Add the flour and salt to the wet mixture. Mix again, just briefly, with the paddle attachment, then replace the paddle attachment with a dough hook. Add the dried fruit to the dough and knead with the hook attachment for five minutes, or until the gluten is developed and the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl (it will be a sticky dough, so the sides of the bowl won’t be clean).
- Move the dough to an oiled bowl, cover with a clean dishcloth and allow to rise until doubled; about one hour.
- Punch the dough down, divide into two equal portions and place each portion into a greased 8 x 4-inch loaf pan.
- Let the dough rise again until doubled (another 30-45 minutes). Preheat your oven to 400˚F. When the loaves have risen, brush the tops with some melted butter.
- Bake the loaves for 30-40 minutes. If you think the tops are browning too quickly, place a bit of tin foil lightly over the tops. The loaves are ready when they’re dark golden brown on top and sound hollow when tapped on their bottoms.
- While the loaves are baking, make the burnt sugar and whiskey syrup: place the ¾ cup of sugar, ¼ cup of water and lemon juice in a saucepan and heat on a medium-high stovetop. Do not stir. Boil the mixture until it’s a dark golden brown, swirling the pot occasionally. When the mixture is dark, remove from heat and immediately add ½ cup cold water and 2 Tbsp Irish whiskey. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until everything is combined. Brush the hot loaves with the syrup as soon as they come out of the oven.
- Serve the barmbrack with hot tea and lashings of good quality butter. It’s best served warm but will last for up to five days (try it toasted or in bread pudding!).
- St. Patrick's Day in Ireland and Traditional Irish Brown Bread
- Celebrating Strawberry Season with Irish Pavlova
- Treats for Halloween Herbie-Jeebies!
Celebrating Strawberry Season in Ireland: Irish Pavlova was written by Janine Kennedy. Janine describes herself as Irish by marriage, Canadian by birth, and Cape Bretoner by divine provenance. She shares her recipes and stories as a Canadian chef living in Ireland on her blog, Cooking with Craic. You can connect with Janine on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.