Barmbrack

Reading all the posts about pumpkin carving, then all the entries in 3rd Annual HALLOWEENSIE CONTEST hosted by Susanna Leonard Hill I began to think back to the Halloween’s of my childhood.

When I was a child Halloween was a family time. We had not heard of the American trick or treating. There were no elaborate costumes either. We did have masks made of flat card with holes for eyes, nose and mouth. Two pieces of elastic went round our ears to hold the mask in place.

Traditional fair included colcannon, apple pie, and barmbrack. No, spell check! I did not mean bareback, it was way to cold for that lark, the very thought makes me sh…sh…shiver!

Later in the evening, we had a dish of mixed nuts and in the days before we owned a nut cracker the hammer was used by my brothers to break the shells. It became a noisy competition, with raised voices questioning who was next to test their skill. Squeals of delight followed if someone managed to break a shell and leave the nut in one piece instead of crumbs.

Games included apple bobbing & snap apple.

Apple bobbing, is a game played by filling a large basin with water and putting apples in the water. The apples floated on the surface, we children then tried to catch one with their teeth. Using our arms was not allowed, and were often held behind our backs to prevent cheating! The first person to lift out an apple by grabbing the stem with his teeth wins a prize.

For Snap apple an apple with a coin inserted in it, is dangled from a string . The arms are tied behind the back and people bite at the apple. The first person who bites into the coin inside the apple wins.

I wonder if these games were invented by dentists? 😉

For our main meal of the day we ate colcannon, a traditional Irish dish mainly consisting of mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage. It usually accompanied boiled bacon. Nobody, but nobody cooked a joint of bacon as sweetly as mammy or Nana, as she became known when the grandchildren arrived on the scene.

If I am honest, I was not fond of colcannon, I did a bit of pushing it round the plate, but the rest of the family wolfed it down in record time. We were thinking of the treats to follow and the fun and games afterwards.

Mammy made wonderful apple tarts/pies. Her pastry was special: Not quite rough puff nor flaky pastry either, it fitted happily in between. The apple pies were brought to the table warm from the oven, decorated in a snow flurry if icing/confectioners sugar and with a large bowl of whipped cream that was set in the middle of the table for those who liked it.

The finale of our meal, to accompany the cups of tea or coffee, was barmbrack.

Then followed the games and when excess energy was spent, we sat round the open fire and listened as our elders told stories. We heard all about the banshee, a ghostly old woman who sat on a gate post, keening and combing her long grey hair. There were scary ghost stories too, that made us frightened to climb the stairs to go to bed.

Barmbrack made a an annual appearance at almost every table across the land at Halloween. All the bakery shops had their own version. In our house Mammy had a well tried recipe that appeared like clockwork each year. It is a cross between sweet bread and cake and full of dried fruit, cherries and candied peel.

The brack was special because of the surprise it contained: a ‘gold’ ring (read gold coloured fine washer) was wrapped in greaseproof and pushed into the mixture in the cake tin before it was put in the oven to bake.

Barmbrack  rings

Nobody was allowed in the kitchen when mammy was slicing the barmbrack. The slices were not cut with her usual precision. The slices were set on their sides and overlapped in order to keep the ring out of view, then the plate was hidden until we had eaten the remainder of our meal. Mammy and only mammy, was allowed to carry the barmbrack to the table, with the plate held high over our heads as she walked around the table.

For several years I was the only girl in the middle of my four brothers, so I was given first chance to select my slice of brack, while hoping it was the one with the ring. Who ever got the ring was sure to get married!

There was a chorus of “Not that one” and “This one here has the ring” even though none of my brothers knew where it was. Magically in those early years, I somehow managed to pick the right slice. When My sister arrived and was old enough to join in she had the first choice and I think Mammy somehow catered for this by adding an extra ring to the cake mix.

Even when we outgrew the apple bobbing, a brack was still made with a ring in it, well almost every year…..

One particular year, I was happily working away in Dublin, the days were busy and the toy boys were fun to work with. The summer holiday season came and went and I worked on. Since I managed to suffer sun-stroke at least three times in Ireland, the thoughts of heading to warmer climes for annual leave during high-season was not my priority.

While crunching through the autumn leaves along the Grand Canal during a late October Friday lunchtime, a sudden gust of swirling leaves & cool air woke me from my day-dreaming. Immediately I longed for some warm sunshine on my back.

‘Warm Sunshine’! What was I thinking about, it was 29th of October and I had not taken my summer holidays! If I didn’t get my act together quickly, I would lose the holiday entitlement at the close of the year.

I quickened my step and headed back towards the office. On the way I passed a Travel Agent. I went inside to make a few enquiries.

“Do you have anything going out tomorrow” I asked?

“For how many people” enquired the young sales lady?

“Just me” I replied cheerfully.

Fifteen minutes later I left the building holding my tickets for a two week holiday in Sunny Spain leaving the next day, Saturday 30th October.

So Saturday was spent sorting, washing and pressing clothes suitable for warm Spanish sunshine. I was due to leave for Dublin airport late that evening.

With the bags finally packed and ready I came down to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Mammy was still bustling about and the aroma from the oven was inviting. Gazing at the kitchen counter, I asked “What’s in the oven?”

“The barmbrack, I thought I would have it ready before you go so that you could have a slice.” Answered mammy.

“Did you forget something?” I asked, turning to her with my hand held out. Sitting in my palm was a little greaseproof parcel containing the ring.

She looked up at me and we both laughed.

“Looks like I’ll not find my man this year!” I said adding the sugar to my coffee.

Arriving at the resort in the early hours of the morning, by body clock took time to catch up with the lack of sleep and the time change. I headed back to the hotel restaurant for lunch. I was seated at a table with three other young ladies. We introduced ourselves and I discovered that they were all from Belfast. Like me they arrived the previous night. Their journey had the added hassle of a couple of hours delay before take-off. Our chatter covered the journey, our resort and expectations for the holiday ahead.

Two gentlemen from a nearby table stopped on their way out from lunch. They were known to the girls as they had all travelled out to Spain on the same aircraft. One of the men stood behind my chair. I was introduced and immediately he said he had noticed me on my walk along the promenade during the morning.

At one point the man behind me, called Jack, wanted to tell me something so he placed his hands on my shoulders to tilt me in his direction. I do not remember the story he told but I do remember his laughter, the twinkle in his eyes and the touch of his hands. Later that night he danced with me and for the remainder of the week he sought me out when planning his activities for the day.

I discovered that Jack, like me, had reason to make changes with holiday plans. He wanted to have a week away earlier in October, but there were no places available. The only week free was leaving Belfast on 30th October.

That Halloween was thirty seven years ago today!

For some reason on that Hallowe’en morning when I first felt those hands on my shoulders I knew they belonged there, and without looking I had found the final piece of my life’s jigsaw that I never realised was missing. We made contact with each other by phone when I returned and met again at Christmastime. From then we travelled up and down the road every couple of weeks. We became
Engaged in February and married in July.

For many years Jack dined out on the fact that we met at Halloween. He told everyone that he thought I was wearing a mask, but by the time he discovered that it didn’t come off, I had my hooks in him! This was all said as he winked at me and gave me a gentle squeeze.

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31 thoughts on “Barmbrack

  1. What a delightful tale, GM. I’m convinced your meeting was orchestrated by the Universe “behind the scenes” so that the two of you would meet ~ your sudden decision to go, your finding the ring OUTSIDE the barmbrack, your decision to go to warmth, Jack’s inability to get away earlier, etc. etc. etc.

      • I really love tales where such coincidences had to be in place for the meeting to happen. It was the opposite in our case: we were living in the same area and had so many friends in common it was quite a miracle we hadn’t met before!

        • I love hearing how couples meet. Years ago when I was single, a a girl that worked with me mentioned an advert for a fly/cruise to the Mediterranean. She asked another girl and I if we would be interested in going and offered to look after the arrangements. We flew to Italy and had ten days floating from port to port and island to island.

          One evening a gentleman called Chris, came over to speak to me, his face was familiar and he felt he knew me. After our chat we discovered we were from the same area, although we had not actually met before. Being a small ship we were interacting and in contact on a daily basis. I of course introduced him to my friends.

          A couple of weeks after the holiday my friend who suggested it, took me aside to say she and Chris had been seeing each other and they were becoming engaged.

          Come back next week and I might have another story!! 😉

  2. A lovely story, GM!! So romantic and meant to be. Predestination I thought as I read it.

    And your barmbrack sounds very empty to me. Mum would put the bean, the pea, the stick, the paper, the coin and the ring in ours, the tokens all meant something different. We hated the pea as it meant poverty. the bean meant riches, etc.
    XO
    WWW

  3. What a wonderful story! I’m so delighted to learn of how you met your Jack! And your Mammy’s wonderful Bramback sounds just delicious and such a fun tradition. But going to Spain on a whim, and meeting your husband, is such heartwarming memory. I’m so glad you shared your story!

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