It is almost 4:30PM ET here at Hodgdon Island Inn, just a mere four (4) miles northwest of Boothbay Harbor, Maine and the sun is just now getting ready to set! I am excited because the days are getting longer. My desk faces westward and I am watching the great “golden orb “sink down behind Sawyer’s Island as I hear the clicking of the timers beginning to kick lights on throughout the house. The water is reflecting yet another pink Maine sunset tonight tinged with touches of lilac and pearl grey. It is beautiful! Somehow at sunset I am often reminded of my Mom.
My Mom was originally from a large town and seaport nestled at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains in Ireland called Dun Laoghaire (anglicized as Dunleary) as was her mother. That seaside town is not much different than some of the towns around us here in mid-coast Maine: Bath, New Harbor, Bristol, Camden, to name a few. They were brave, kind women who never passed up an opportunity to smile and they never failed to make the best of things. Tomorrow, February 1, is an important day for the Irish – it is the traditional First Day of Spring and it is the Feast Day of St. Brigid. As you can well imagine, it was a day to look forward to growing up – special outings, special food, special breads.
And just who is St. Bridgid you might ask? Saint Brigid, or to be really correct Saint Brigid of Kildare, is a saint of many names: Brigid of Ireland, Brigit, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd, Bride, Naomh Bhríde or „Mary of the Gaels“. Living from 451 to 525 (it is said). She was an Irish nun, abbess, founder of several convents, held the rank of bishop and generally venerated as a saint. Considered as one of Ireland’s patron saints, she ranks only behind Saint Patrick himself in importance.
In Ireland, the special bread which is customary to eat on the feast day of St. Brigid as well as at Samhain, or Halloween is Barm Brack or Barm Bread.
Traditionally, it was part of an annual fortune-telling ritual. Similar to the English ritual of hiding tokens representing what fortune has in store for whoever discovered the prize in his or her slice of plum pudding. Family and friends would gather to have tea and Barm Brack, with each anticipating their fortune.
The tokens baked into the Barm Brack were a pea or a thimble, a piece of cloth, a coin and a gold ring. If your slice contained the pea or the thimble, you could expect another year of being an old maid. If, on the other hand, your slice revealed the gold ring, you could expect to be married within the year. The cloth, symbolizing rags, meant poverty or bad luck in the year ahead. The coin signified fame and fortune were on the way!
Although some versions of Barm Bread or Barm Brack are leavened with yeast, beer or ale, baking powder, or baking soda, one thing that appears to be common in most forms of these breads is the preparation of the fruit. Before the raisins and other dried fruits are added to the batter or dough, they are soaked for a period in hot tea until they are plump and rehydrated. This makes them wonderfully soft inside the baked bread.
It can be eaten at breakfast or at tea time and some establishments in Ireland serve Barm Brack with every meal. My favorite recipe, as always, because I have found it to be the easiest and least time consuming, is from Angela Hynes’ book The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea. I will add it to the recipe section of the website.
P.S. February 1st may be the “traditional” first day of spring in Ireland, but meteorologists would say that the first day of spring is actually March 20th .