Is bara brith a bread? Or is it a cake? Feelings run almost as high in some parts of Wales about this tasty issue as they do about the rugby scores. Some say bara brith is definitely a bread given that, made the traditional way, it is made with yeast and smeared liberally with salted Welsh butter. But others argue that since it’s packed with fruit and takes pride of place at any Welsh tea table, it’s indisputably a cake. Whatever the case, bara brith is delicious.
In Welsh, bara brith means ‘speckled bread’, the speckles being the raisins, currants and candied peel that go into it. Originally this name was used only in North Wales, with southerners calling it ‘teisen dorth’ (meaning ‘cake loaf’). But the moniker is now adopted throughout the principality.
In times gone by, bara brith would have been the final treat cobbled together at the end of the weekly bake at the village oven. As the embers began to fade, any leftover bread dough was gathered up and married with dried fruit, producing a delicious sweet bread.
Geoff Cole, who runs the Cemlyn Tea Shop in Harlech where bara brith is a permanent fixture, believes that sometimes women would have knocked up a bara brith to compensate for arriving late at the village oven when it was no longer at its hottest. “If a woman was at the end of the queue, her bread would probably be doughy and less interesting, so she’d pop in a few currants. When she got home her husband would say what a good cook she was.”
When the Welsh sailed off to Argentina in 1865 in search of a better life, they took their famous bread, sorry, cake, with them. Visit a Welsh teahouse anywhere in Argentina’s Chubut province and you’ll find bara brith on the menu. It’s usually pretty sweet much more of a cake than a bread. In Spanish they call it torta negra, or black cake.
With the advent of raising agents suchas bicarbonate of soda, some cooks, particularly in South Wales, started making bara brith with self-raising flour, which made it last longer. Originally lard was used as a shortening and whey as liquid, but they were replaced with butter or margarine, and milk.
Today, the recipe is still passed down from mother to daughter, and every family has its own version. Some still make it with yeast, while others, including most commercial makers, use self-raising flour.
“Most places have their own recipe,” says Geoff Cole, who has been baking bara brith for the past 18 years. “If you have 10 people, you’ll probably have 12 or 13 recipes. We have our own recipe that we found in an old Welsh cookery book and have adapted over time.”
Nerys Roberts, a farmer’s wife on the Isle of Anglesey, makes up to 120 bara brith loaves a day, which she sells commercially. She was passed her secret recipe by her grandmother. As a child she remembers her mother baking bara brith every Saturday. “We ate it at tea time with butter on it.”
During the war, she says, pretty much anything was thrown into it. Nerys now makes a special luxury version for Christmas, with cherries, sherry and almonds. “I made it for my mother, as a replacement for Christmas cake, as she didn’t like marzipan,” she says.
As well as the yeast vs self-raising flour and bread vs cake debates, another hotly discussed issue is the issue of tea. Apparently, the inhabitants of North Wales tend to soak the fruit in tea overnight, but those in the south do not.
Geoff Cole advocates soaking the fruit for 24 hours in strong tea. “At the teashop we use our own afternoon tea blend, but others use Earl Grey, which gives the bara brith a perfumed flavour. The acid in the tea reacts with the fruit to give it a good taste.”
Whatever the recipe, bara brith will be a definite culinary fixture on St David’s Day on 1 March, alongside cawl (leek and potato soup) and Welsh lamb. “Wales wouldn’t be Wales without it,” says Nerys, as she pulls a tray of hot bara briths out of the oven in her farmhouse kitchen.
A sweet St David's day treat
Recipe: Sugar-crusted bara brith
400g (14oz) luxury mixed fruit • 75g (2½oz) pack dried cranberries • mug hot strong black tea • 100g (3½oz) butter, plus extra for greasing • 2 heaped tbsp orange marmalade• 2 eggs, beaten • 450g (1lb) self-raising flour – try a mix of wholemeal and white • 175g (6oz) light soft brown sugar • 1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ground ginger • 4 tbsp milk • 50g (2oz) crushed sugar cubes or granulated sugar, to decorate.
• Mix together the dried fruit and cranberries in a large bowl, then pour the hot tea over. Cover with cling-film and leave to soak overnight.
• Heat oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Butter and line the bottom of a 900g (2lb) loaf tin with baking parchment. Melt butter and marmalade together in a pan. Leave to cool for 5 mins, then beat in the eggs. Drain any excess tea from the fruit. Mix the flour, sugar and spices together, then stir in the fruit, butter mix and milk until evenly combined. The batter should softly drop from the spoon – add more milk if needed.
• Spoon into the tin and level the top. Sprinkle with the crushed sugar and bake for 1-1¼ hours until dark golden and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Cover loosely with foil if it starts to over-colour before the middle is cooked. Leave to cool completely in the tin and serve sliced.
Recipe provided by Jane Hornby
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 44 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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