Barnbrack or Barmbrack?

I was reared on Barnbrack. Or brack, for short. It's a fruity bread served at Hallowe'en in Ireland, cut in slices - always, in our house, by my sister Mary - and thickly buttered to conceal the whereabouts of a lucky ring baked in the loaf. Actually, the fact that Mary did the cutting and buttering may explain why, year after year, to groans of disappointment from the rest of us, when we sat down at teatime she always got the ring. But that's another story.

The point is that we called it Barnbrack. Not Barmbrack. Now, barm is the foam, or scum, that forms on the top of fermented alcoholic beverages and is used as a raising agent in bread. And it's perfectly true that a brack requires a raising agent. But it's name is Barnbrack, not Barmbrack. Besides, we always used yeast.   

I first heard Barnbrack called Barmbrack in England, shortly after I arrived there in the 1970s. But it was clear that the English - though fine people in many respects - hadn't much of a clue about Hallowe'en. They kept announcing that it was American, and I could never find brack, monkeynuts, breadsoda or buttermilk in their shops. (The English call breadsoda Bicarb. Technically accurate, I admit, but weird nonetheless.) Anyway, faced with their ignorance of the basic facts about, and requirements for, Hallowe'en, I dismissed the whole Barmbrack thing as absurd.

But then, in the silent watches of the night, I began to worry. Barmbrack came with a convincing etymology. What exactly did Barnbrack mean? There was no problem with the brack bit. Breac is the Irish for 'speckled'. Digging surreptitiously about in a dictionary, I came up with bairín, a word I've never knowingly used myself, but is indeed Irish for 'a loaf'. So, there you go, 'a speckled loaf' - which pretty much describes Barnbrack. 

I rest my case. 

This, by the way, is Brack And Butter Pudding. Slices of stale buttered brack in a buttered dish. Pour on egg custard and bake in a moderate oven under a thick grating of nutmeg. 

It's far from that I was reared, of course. We  fried our stale brack in butter and ate it for breakfast with rashers.


  1. I do believe that my first encounter with Barmbrack was also in England....we never had yeast in ours, but in my mother's old cookery books,the recipes did contain yeast. Where would you get yeast in the back end of Donegal!

  2. Where indeed? :) I'd never heard of barm either till I got to England . Travel definitely broadens the mind!

  3. No love for brack here...never liked it.

  4. any chance you could post the recipe? I'd love to try it. when I spent a month in Dingle in July (my mum and I got to have coffee with you), we took a bread class down on Hare Island but didn't talk about barnbrak

    1. Hi Chelle.

      Good to hear from you again. Hope you and the family are well. The recipe for brack appears in the comments under this post on The House on an Irish Hillside's fb page.

      But just in case you don't do Facebook, here's a cut and paste :)


      1 lb flour
      6 oz sugar
      1 lb mixed dried fruit
      1 tsp baking powder
      1 egg
      1 tsp all spice/mixed spice
      A hot, strong pot of tea

      A gold ring (wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper)

      This recipe uses baking powder as a raising agent, so it’s very easy to make. The first thing to do is soak the dried fruit overnight in the tea. Then add the sugar and egg to the fruit the next day, when the dried fruit will have plumped out. Sift in the remaining dry ingredients. Mix together – but gently so you don’t break the fruit. Add the ring to the mix, pour into a lined and buttered 7" round baking tin and bake at 350°F, 180C, Gas mark 4, for 80 minutes or so. Cool on a wire rack.

  5. Thanks Felicity. I don't have Facebook, but my mum keeps me up to date on your posts. This reminds me of the norwegian bread called Julekake I used to eat as a child, minus the ring. That may have made it worthwhile. Although after smothering it butter it always tasted wonderful. Happy Autumm.


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