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Barm brack, also called báirín breac, is a traditional Irish tea bread. This raised fruit bread is lightly sweet and studded with raisins, candied citrus peel, currants, sultanas (yellow raisins), and other bits of dried fruit. It is served toasted and generously buttered, accompanied by a cup of tea.
There is some discrepancy over the origin of the name “barm brack.” Some sources say it comes from barm, meaning “yeast,” and brack, meaning “bread.” Other sources claim the words mean “little speckled cake.” Perhaps the quandary is fitting, since the bread itself seems to be a bit of both.
Although some barm brack versions are leavened with baking powder or baking soda instead of yeast, one thing that appears to be common in most forms of this bread 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 gives them a uniquely soft character in the finished product.
In Ireland, it is customary to eat barm brack at Samhain, or Halloween. Traditionally, it was part of an annual fortune-telling ritual. Wrapped individually in a bit of waxed paper and baked into the loaf were several small tokens imbued with symbolism for whoever was served the slice containing them. Family and friends would gather to have tea and barm brack, with each eagerly, perhaps fearfully, anticipating the news their slice would bring.
The tokens baked into the loaf were a pea or a thimble, a snippet of cloth, a coin, a stick, and a gold ring. If your slice contained the pea or the thimble, you could expect another year of spinsterhood. If, on the other hand, your slice revealed the gold ring, you could expect to be married within the year. The stick, however, was a portent of a bad marriage, one that would require “a stick with which to beat one’s wife.” The fragment of cloth, signifying rags, foretold poverty or bad luck in the year ahead. The coin was a fortuitous omen — good things, hopefully riches, were on the way.
In addition to Halloween, barm brack is also eaten on the feast day of Saint Bridget, which falls on February 1. It can be eaten as a breakfast bread or at tea time, and some establishments in Ireland serve this bread with every meal.
In Ireland, barm brack is sold commercially, particularly around Halloween. These store-bought loaves will often contain a toy ring.
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