It is almost 7:45PM here at Charred Oaks Inn, located in Versailles, Kentucky, just about twelve miles west of downtown Lexington 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 the clock tower on City Hall as I hear the clicking of the timers beginning to kick lights on throughout the house. Tonight’s sky is yet another glowing Kentucky sunset tinged with touches of orange, fuchsia and lilac. It is beautiful!
Somehow, this time of the year at sunset I am 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. They were brave, kind women who never passed up an opportunity to smile and they never failed to make the best of things. Tomorrow, as St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated and the first day of spring follows, I am reminded of special days on my Mom’s calendar – days to look forward to growing up - special outings, special food, special breads.
In Ireland, February 1 is the official first day of spring and the feast day of St. Bridgid. 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 have included it in the recipe section of the website.
P.S. If you would like the recipe for traditional Irish Soda Bread for your St. Patrick’s Day festivities, be sure to check out the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread www.sodabread.info