IRELAND WALES EUROPE
Nuala Hickey is comfortable with the Anglo-Norman origin for the speckled bread known as báirín breac in Ireland and bara brith in Wales.
Brought to prominence in the 1800s, when baking ingredients became commonplace in Irish and Welsh homes, the fruit brack assumed a new identity everywhere it was known. It slipped into folklore as a genuine traditional food without a thought about provenance.
Now its origins are shrouded in the lost time of oral folklore. No written or printed recipes survived in Ireland or Wales until the emergence of the modern cookbook in the late 1800s when recipes passed down began to appear in print. Everything about this enriched yeast bread before the 1900s suggested a conundrum.
Hickey’s Bakery sits outside the west gate of the old walled town of Clonmel in the county of Tipperary. Every morning Nuala’s bakers produce a batch of báirín breac, the authentic barm brack of Ireland. With every passing day the conundrum is heightened by the presence of this bread in the food culture of the region because Nuala and other bakers like her would like to see it recognised as a geographic specific food product. She is the fourth generation of Hickey bakers to maintain the ascendency of the brack.
The brack has an unbroken line back into the 1800s when rustic recipes began to appear. They indicated an older tradition that suggested the bread was made with natural yeast, possibly with yeast from the beer-making process — the barm. In Wales that line divided to create two versions – a yeasted fruit bread and an unyeasted fruit cake – with countless subtle variations. In Ireland the line already had two distinct branches, the báirín breac made with dried fruit with a ring inserted during Hallowe’en and the tea brack made with dried fruit soaked in tea, the former with yeast, the latter with baking powder. The Hickey báirín breac is traditional, a dense loaf packed with fruit and made with modern yeast. It is one of its kind.
Fruit breads are products of Celtic, Etruscan, Gothic, Nordic and Roman ingenuity. They show fidelity to dried fruit – currants, raisins and sultanas – and to spices such as cardamon, clove, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, nutmeg and pomegranate, to nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, to lemon and orange peel and zest, to sweetners like honey and molassas and to fats like butter and lard. Before yeasted bread became a daily event and the loaf became a symbol of town and village life, fruit breads made with sourdoughs were ceremonial events.
Only one type of yeasted fruit bread has survived with an authentic history. This is the fruit bread known as stollen in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. A yeasted loaf with a high butter and fruit content, stollen is associated with the German city of Dresden but is found in the months up to the end of year festivities throughout Germany and Switzerland where it is known as stollen fest. Free-formed by hand and shaped into loaves, stollen come in several sizes.
Dresdner Stollen is also known as Dresdner Christstollen. In 1490 Pope Innocent VIII exempted Dresden’s bakers from the 1450 ban on baking with butter during Advent (then a period of fasting). This ‘butter’ letter’ allowed the city’s modern bakers to make a case for stollen to be recognised as a traditional product and in June 2008 the European Union granted protected geographical indicator status to Dresden’s iconic fruit bread.
A Dresdener stollen has a light aerated crumb with a strong aroma and depth of flavour. It is not as light as the panettone although it will compare to some versions of the gugelhupf but it is not as heavy as the hutzelbrot, the pligätsch and the poffert, and nowhere near as dense as the modern speckled bread of Clonmel. The fact that stollen now has a symbol is good news for Nuala Hickey and her báirín breac and for those bakers in Wales who specialise in the original bara brith.
This brings us to the Anglo-Normans who came to the Irish south-east from the Welsh south-west in the 1100s and 1200s. They made their way up the Suir river and established settlements along the river, Clonmel among them. While no one is convinced that báirín breac is a product of the big house tradition in Ireland, equally there is no proof that the Anglo-Normans carried a fruit bread tradition over from Wales or from their distant cousins in Normandy.
Whether the Hugenots, who brought the fluffy white bread rolls known as blaa, also brought a version of the speckled bread is damaged by the argument that there was no speckled bread tradition in France outside the royal courts. The gugelhupf, a fruit cake baked in a mould that resembles the rotating sun, has origins that pre-date the Romans, continue through the monastaries and end up in the French courts via Austrian royalty. It was associated with childbirths, festivals, harvests and weddings. Early versions suggest it was also a yeasted bread with a tradition in bierbrot, the bread made with the yeast from beer-making. The currants and raisins that went into a gugelhupf were soaked in tea.
In France pain aux fruits secs and pain moucheté always refer to the bara brith and never to the báirín breac, an equally appealing argument that there is a coincidence here and no connection. It is also possible that both bracks have nothing in common, and that báirín breac is an Irish Celtic product, known before the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland.
If so where did the Celts get the dried fruit? Who imported it into the country? There is a train of thought on this. After the fall of Rome, Irish monks ‘saved’ christianity by, among other things, creating monastries across Europe. These monastic communities grew grapes, made wine and dried the fruit. They made breads and confections, especially spiced breads (gingerbreads) and fruit breads. Unfortunately, with the exception of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen of Rupertsberg and a few others, they hardly ever put recipes on parchment.
The speckled breads of Ireland and Wales share similarities with ingredients, differing in the methods from bakery to home, from village to town, for countless variations. The primary ingredients are dried fruit, white wheat flour, butter or lard, brown sugar, eggs, yeast and spices. Both countries also share the tradition of soaking the fruit in sugar and tea (and in Ireland in whiskey) overnight. This changes it into a tea brack with baking powder the preferred raising agent.
Traditionally the yeasted fruit bread was made with lard, spices were optional (as was the ring often put in the dough at Hallowe’en), brown sugar was used instead of white sugar and butter or lard and eggs varied ridiculously from recipe to recipe.
The Irish method generally favoured a dough kneaded before the fruit was added, the Welsh kneaded everything together. This latter method is tough on the arms but it does produce a different bread, because the kneading allows the fruit to permeate the dough.
Some methods called for a long bake in a slow oven, others a short high bake.
Nowadays strong white wheat flour, farmhouse butter and fresh organic eggs make the real difference between a good speckled bread and a bad one, that and the kneading. While the tea brack is still around, it would appear that the yeasted fruit bread is more popular.
Nuala Hickey will attest to that notion and to the theory that Strongbow’s chefs produced speckled breads among the wedding banquet to delight Aoife, his celtic bride.
This is the old recipe, for a dense Irish báirín breac. Replacing the lard with milk produces a lighter loaf. The lard can also be replaced with butter.
- 500 g strong white flour
- 500 g white wheat flour, t550
- 250 g brown sugar
- 250 g currants
- 250 g raisins
- 250 g sultanas
- 225 ml whole milk
- 4 eggs (240 g), beaten
- 125 g butter
- 125 g lard
- 50 g candied fruit / peel, chopped small
- 25 g yeast
- 10 g cinnamon ground (optional)
- 10 g nutmeg, grated (optional)
- 1 tsp white sugar
- Salt, large pinch
Dissolve yeast in the milk with white sugar.
Sieve flours into a large bowl, add salt, rub in the butter and lard. Work in the brown sugar, fruit and, if using, the spices.
Make a well in the middle, carefully fold eggs and yeast mixture into the flour, sugar and fruit. Use hands to knead mixture in the bowl. Turn out onto a clean surface, knead for 15 minutes.
Cover, leave to rise for an hour, degas, leave for a second hour. Divide in two, place in greased loaf tins, leave for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 150°C.
Bake for two hours, test centre of each loaf with skewer, if very moist give another 10 minutes.
The loaves can be glazed with a thin sugar syrup, and put back in for ten minutes.
The similarities between gugelhupf and other continental European fruit breads are obvious, whereas the familiarity between gugelhupf and the speckled breads of Ireland and Wales is startling. The difference is in the method. The báirín breac is a dough, the gugelhupf is a batter. The bara brith and the gugelhupf are both made with yeast and with baking powder, although this is an expedient consequence.
The bara brith changed because of the arrival of baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and self-raising flour into Welsh homes. The older tradition of adding dried fruit to the last bread dough of the day to make a sweet product was simply a variation. Of more significance was the change of method in the 1900s. Home bakers in north Wales soaked the fruit in tea and used yeast as the raising agent whereas in south Wales baking agents were utilised and the fruit was not reconstituted. The use of butter, dripping or lard became a personal choice.
This is the traditional yeast version of bara brith.
- 1 kg white wheat flour, t550 + 65 g white wheat flour
- 350 ml water, for tea
- 350 ml whole milk, lukewarm
- 200 g butter
- 175 g raisins
- 175 g sultanas
- 120 g brown sugar
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 90 g currants
- 60 g candied peel
- 30 g yeast
- 15 ml honey, warmed, for glaze
- 3 tsp strong tea leaves
- 1 tsp mixed ground spice
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp white sugar
Make tea, brew for 15 minutes. Soak the dried fruit in the tea overnight.
Combine the yeast in warm milk with a teaspoon of white sugar, leave for 10 minutes.
Rub the butter into the flour, add the peel, brown sugar, drained dried fruit, spices and salt.
Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture, add the yeast mixture and eggs. Form into a soft dough, cover and leave to rise for about two hours, until dough has doubled in size.
Turn out onto a board dusted with a tablespoon of flour, work 50 grams of flour into the dough, knead for 15 minutes into a smooth dough.
Place in greased loaf tins, cover again and leave for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200ºC.
Place tins in the oven, bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 160ºC and bake for 75 minutes.
Put loaves on a rack, turn and and glaze the tops with honey.
There is a coherent argument for báirín breac and bara brith to be given protected geographical status. Both breads have an unsullied history rooted in folklore and food tradition. The issue is with the ingredients. Dried fruit is not indigenous to Ireland and Welsh viticulture is a modern activity. Strong wheat, lemons and oranges, cinnamon and nutmeg are not indigenious either. And that is the conundrum.
Some of this text will appear in the books Hibernia | Food Travels in Ireland and The Great European Food Adventure, to be published in 2021.