baking holidays

Barmbrack for St. Pat’s

17 March 2011

The one and only time I went to Ireland I ate (vegetarian) baked beans, cheese toasties, fried eggs, mash. We had glasses of gin and orange at a pub near our hostel and and later that night stuffed pillows into our ears to drown out the cheerful snoring of our room mates. We drank tea and also Jameson later and smoked cigarettes in the Temple Bar and ordered pints of Guinness even later than that. It was cold in July. I wished for warmer sweaters.

Ireland — as I’ve written about before — has a certain hold on my heart, even though I was there so briefly, and just the once. Sometimes I like to think it’s because a few relatives originated there (a great-grandmother I think, perhaps others); that heritage, filtered down through the generations, has made me wish forits green hills and grey, churning sea though in reality I’ve hardly explored the country at all. Either way, I’m often plotting and planning to go back, and reading as many books by Irish writers as I can in lieu of a visit.

It’s tempting to romanticize Ireland — The emerald mountains! Slipping into a pub for a pint! Reels upon rousing reels played long into the night! Slices of thick soda bread spread with sweet butter! Roaring fires made from peat moss! — but the truth is far more complicated. For every soothing Altan song about horses and misty mornings, there is Christy Moore’s biting commentary about displacement, and early U2′s political manifestos set to music. There is the lingering aftermath of the Troubles. There are the roads described as “a purposeless fragment of highway built to make the starving work for their welfare shilling.” There is — as Nuala O’Faolain wrote — “Ireland’s tragic history of emigration and depopulation.”

But Ireland, oh, Ireland. It’s a beautiful place nonetheless — perhaps even more so because of its past, and I cannot help but appreciate the place for it. Even in my two short days wandering the Dublin streets I was captivated; there was a bitter wind off the water that made me wish, even in summer, I’d brought a scarf, and the sun only came out here and there, but I couldn’t complain because there I was — at last. To me, Ireland is late-night pints and sitting in a park outside the writer’s museum, a bus ride down winding roads with flashing views of an iron-grey sea, tree branches that brushed the windows as we passed by. It’s a country of rain and sun and Gaelic street signs and whiskey. It is complex, and endlessly fascinating, and despite all my mooning on over Greece, it is a place I terribly wish to visit.

I often bake a small something in commemoration of St. Pat’s — ‘amateur night’ though it may be (dubbed thus by a wise friend long ago and it’s true; I may stick to my tangerine juice tonight, thanks very much) — and this year I made a loaf of the Barmbrack (bairín breac) I first experimented with a few years ago. This time round, I must admit, I didn’t have quite all of the ingredients on hand for which the recipe called, and so substituted regular raisins for the golden, and a bit of ginger for the allspice — fine, I think, since this loaf is traditionally baked at Halloween and not for St. Patrick’s Day. But little matter, really.

Little matter, too, that last night when I slid the loaf from my cranky oven that it seemed stodgy and too heavy. I feared straightaway something was off — the yeast rise perhaps affected by the rain, or that I’d put too much flour into the batter whilst kneading it. It seemed a bit tough, and bit too doughy, though I didn’t want to bake it any more lest it burn; why the …? G-d bless it (or worse), I probably muttered, because the waste of ingredients + loss of time = a grumpy me — me! who loathes to waste even a precious second of the hours in the day. However! This morning I awoke to a clear, crisp sky and a decent-looking Barmbrack after all and so I lugged it into work with a small pot of blackberry honey (from Sebastopol), a small jar of blueberry jam (from Maine), and a bit of butter (from Clover), sliced it up prettily, and watched my coworkers devour it, leaving just a scrap left as I write this at nearly tea-time. So.

This is how James Joyce described Barmbrack, in a short story from The Dubliners: “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.” Yes please. I should like this for tea at least once a week, for it is sweet but not too, hearty enough to support a piece of sharp cheddar if you decide to go rogue, and just the right of substantive to eat for breakfast if you’re sick to the teeth of oatmeal (just this week, swear).

And indeed that’s just what I’m off to do with the few crumbs remaining. I shall toast a little toast to Ireland, the green land, the beloved country — and hope that one day soon I shall see it again.

(Also consider an utterly smooth and delicious Guinness chocolate cake — for today, or any day, or preferably even every day.)


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

– W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree

  • Ashley - Freshly Vegetarian 22 March 2011 at 12:02 pm

    Ooh, this post is lurvely! I’m glad the bread turned out, as nothing is worse than when they don’t. I’m impressed you didn’t taste a slice before taking it to work, and on the note of work: how lucky are you coworkers?!

    I was wondering about the 4 c white flour…I’m a big fan of whole grain flours — however, like you, I don’t want to waste time and ingredients to have a recipe flop — so I was wondering if you think any whole wheat flour (perhaps whole wheat pastry flour so it’s lighter?) could be substituted in this recipe?

    Never having tasted barmbrack I didn’t want to make any assumptions.

  • Miri Leigh 19 March 2011 at 3:07 pm

    This bread looks delicious. Thanks for posting!

  • helen 18 March 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Ahhhh……you have the soul of an Irish writer. You’ve captured the melancholy and longing with a hint of the Irish gift for mayhem. Lovely post and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!