Traditional Irish Barmbrack


October sees the clocks turn back, the dark evenings in, the weather on the chillier side and the height of the harvest season heralding the hibernation of winter.  Orchid apples, pumpkins, squashes, kale and cabbages, varieties of Irish potatoes and fresh nuts along with the more wintery blackberries and other fruits of late autumn. This is a great time for nutritionally stockpiling and a perfect opportunity to turn back to the warming dishes that support the immune system and support your adrenal energy once winter begins. The high mark of the threshold between the two seasons of Autumn and Winter is the great Irish festival that is Samhain Oiche or Halloween. A significant date in the ancient Celtic and druidic calendar. The word translates as ‘end of Summer’ and marked the end of harvest and a time when the veil that separates the living and dead is at its thinnest. The druids who were held in the highest regard were also acknowledged to have psychic powers, would light bonfires, dress in masquerade and would predict the fortune for the next coming year. This tradition has survived in the form we now know as Halloween and the fortune telling in the barmbrack (bairin breac) that foretells what you have coming depending on the talismanic items you find in your slice.

A pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, carried a meaning to the person concerned: The pea indicated the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring indicated a wedding within the year.


Traditionally breac is a sweet, yeasted bread speckled with fruit. This version is a gluten, sugar and dairy free barmbrack so that anyone with food allergies or other strictures can still enjoy it. (You can of course, be fully traditional and use a plain or wholemeal wheat flour and sugar if you like. This recipe, if made gluten-free, is, however, a rich and tasty treat despite missing all those usual ingredients that can be serious irritants rather than delights. It is moist and rich in tea-soaked fruit and best of all can be made ahead and stored. It is the perfect accompaniment to tea. We do like to add some roughly chopped walnuts and almonds though this is not traditional.



Place the warm tea and liquid sweetener in a bowl. Mix together a little. Add in the dried fruit. Cover and set aside to soak overnight. This bit is very important. Don’t rush this step. The following day the liquid will all/mostly be absorbed. Add the fat and egg and the sieved flour, bread soda and mixed spice and mix well. Drop your coin, ring, stick, rag and pea or bean into the batter and stir in before you transfer mixture to tin.

Transfer to a greased and lined 900g/2lb loaf tin or a 20cm/8” round cake tin and smooth the top. Bake in a pre-heated oven 170°C/325°F/Gas 3 for approx. 1 hour to 1 ½ hours or until risen and firm to the touch. Cool on a wire tray. When cold wrap in greaseproof paper and keep for two days before cutting, if you can. If not – just tuck in, and worry about the crumbs afterwards. Store in an airtight tin.