imbolc bread

Bridget’s Day approaches, also referred to as Imbolg, Charming of the Plow, and Bjele Poklede (White Carnival; Slavic). Considered the ‘first of spring’, this Between Time marks the halfway point between Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox.

This Pagan custom is still preserved in Ireland on the Eve of St. Bridget,
and which was probably transposed to St. Bridget’s Eve from the
festival of a famed poetess of the same name in the time of Paganism.
In an ancient glossary now before me she is described:
‘Bridit, a poetess, the daughter of Dagha, a goddess of Ireland.’
-Antiquitates Vulgares,
by Rev. Henry Bourne, 1725 CE

Some think this deity was the same
Queen of Heaven to whom
the Jewish women burnt incense,
poured out drink offerings,
and made cakes for her with their own hands.
-Flowers of the Lives of the Saints,
Immanuel Porter, 1632 CE

Historically, this is a wide-reaching holiday, one that celebrates the first end of Winter and the first sign of Spring. Traditionally, this was the time to make Brigid Crosses and Brooms. The first is either a doll-shape or a sunwheel shape, and the latter is hung in the home – to ‘collect’ baneful energy. Brigid’s Day was marked by merry celebrations, blessing of crops and homestead, promises of marriage, the maintenance and decoration of holy wells and springs, and as with many such occasions, a time for divination.

Each region – from Ireland to Scandinavia, from Germany to Poland – celebrated in ways particular to those folk. Today, we do not consider Winter’s weight, that forced entire families to “nest” or hunker-down. Indoor activities included not just maintenance of ropes and equipment, or repairing and making clothing, but playing board games, telling riddles and stories, and other activities. Then, as the temperatures warmed, the menfolk prepared their costumes: donning fur cloaks they would transform themselves into Wolfmen. Roaming the streets and byways, ringing heavy bells, they warded the village against the last of Winter’s Dark Spirits.

wolfmen imbolc

Meanwhile, the womenfolk prepared the house for guests, and began making bairin-breac or barmbrack, a yeasted bread with sultanas and raisins.

On Bride’s Feast every farmer’s wife makes a cake, the bairin-breac.
Neighbors gather, ale is drank, pipe goes ‘round, and cheer is had!
-Descripton of Westmeath, Sir H. Piers, 1682 CE

I was taught to make ‘bram’ or ‘brack’ as a child. Any dried fruit can be used; generally, it is what remains after the cupboard is bare .. the last of the winter stores. What follows is my Welsh Grandmother’s recipe, which was adjusted according to my Irish Grandfather’s sensibilities – which explains the Whiskey Butter (glaze) .. which he explained is a “must if you want the Fae to come”. Because not everyone has Sourdough ready for baking, or honors the Goddess Fermenta, below is the non-yeast version.

Traditional Bairin-Breac / Barmbrack
Bread:
¾ cup each, raisins, sultanas, and currents (see *Note below)
¼ cup dates, chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cup strong black tea (I use Earl Gray, with its touch of bergamont)
¼ cup Irish Whiskey (or any good Scotch Whiskey)
1 egg, beaten
1 and ¾ cups self-rising flour
1 and ¼ cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon mixed cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg

Glaze:
¼ cup unsalted butter
2 tablespoons water
¼ cup honey
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup Irish Whiskey

Directions:
Allow the raisins, sultanas, currants, and dates to soak in a bath of Whiskey and Tea for at least an hour (better overnight, or: *Note: I like to use leftover Mincemeat, that I made during Yule. At this time of year, I generally have about 2 cups left. I use it *instead* of the dried fruit above.)

Preheat oven to 350d (180c).
Prepare a loaf tin with butter and flour.

Add zest, egg, flour, sugar, and spice to the fruit and Whiskey / Tea mix.  Stir well to combine all.
Pour batter into the tin, and bake for about 1 to 1.5 hours (or until a toothpick comes out clean).

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Add in the lemon zest, beaten egg, flour, sugar and mixed spice to the fruit and tea mixture. Stir well until everything is just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin. Bake for about 1- 1 1/2 hours or until a toothpick comes out clean.

When done, place tin on wire rack to cool.  Prepare glaze.

For glaze: Place all ingredients in a sauce pan, heat on low, stirring.
Bring to boil .. stirring continuously .. for several minutes, until it reduces slightly.  Set aside to cool.

With the Barmbrack still warm, remove from tin and drizzle cooled glaze over the top.  You want it to absorb, so take your time. Use all the glaze.

Enjoy!

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