It was my friend Nigel who first taught me that brack is a word, a word for a food. Nigel is somehow both a young and old Irish man, a person who is able to exist in that murky demeanor where crankiness, good humor, and wisdom overlap. As an expat, he reminisces over the food of childhood in Ireland with the same sense of loss as a ninety-year-old. Around the time that the furious heats of the Texas summer begin to give way to cool autumn mornings and frost, one of the foods Nigel misses the most is his mom’s tea brack.
A brack is a kind of speckled-cake bread, and tea brack is speckled-cake bread made with tea. And this was the limit of Nigel’s knowledge. “What are you even asking? A brack is a brack.” Also, the American Heritage dictionary was no help at all. Even the internet failed me, although I did learn that bracken is a kind of fern. And I was reminded that brackish is the sort of water that mangroves grow in.
It was the good old Oxford English Dictionary that finally shed some kind of light. Brack the shortened form of “barnbrack,” which, like the recipe itself, is Irish. In Irish, “bairghean” means cake of bread, and “breac” means speckled.
As it turns out, brack is a seasonal food, a holiday food belonging to two different holidays. The older traditions, as recorded by General Charles Vallancy in 1772, connect brack eating to Saint Brigid’s Eve, January 31st. February 1st is Saint Brigid’s feast day, but it is also the first day of Celtic spring in the even older Pagan tradition.
In 1867, a decade or so after the end of the Irish famine, Patrick Kennedy spoke of barnbracks as one of “the varieties of the staff of life” in his The Banks of Boro: A Chronicle of the County of Wexford.
And, in 1928, the February 3rd edition of Universe tells us, “A loaf of curious, very sweet currant bread is made and sold for All Souls Day. Even the poorest household manages to secure one of these Barn-bracks.” Which brings us back to Nigel’s mother, Gillian, who always made tea brack around Halloween.
Gillian’s Tea Brack
You will need:
- 1 cup black raisins
- 1 cup sultanas, or golden raisins
- freshly grated zest from 1 orange and one lemon
- 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 2 cups of freshly brewed black tea
- one stick of butter at room temperature
- 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 Granny Smith apple, chopped into 1/2 cubes
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3 1/2 cups self rising flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice, or your favorite spice mix
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1/4 cup orange brandy or whiskey
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the raisins, zest, brown sugar, and black tea into a saucepan. Stir until all the sugar has been dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then remove from the heat. Add the chopped apples Allow the mixture to cool. When the mixture has completely cooled, add the beaten egg.
Meanwhile, sift the flour. Cream the flour, spices, and salt into the butter. Add the walnuts to the dry mixture.
Add the tea mixture to the flour mixture. Stir just until all the flour has been incorporated. Immediately transfer the mixture into a greased 6 x 6 baking dish or pan. Cook for 1:15-1:30, or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.