Bara Brith: a recipe for ‘lock-down’

A YouGov survey asking how habits have changed since the start of the coronavirus lockdown found that people are preparing more meals at home and are falling in love with baking and home cooking. So now we know what people are doing with all those bags of flour that disappeared from the shops a month ago. It also explains why the most popular page on the National Trust website at the moment is the one with the cheese scone recipe.

But if you have had your fill of cheese scones and want a different tea-time treat, why not try making traditional Welsh bara brith (literally ‘speckled bread’) instead.

It is very easy to make, and if you are cooking with children you may find this more successful than scones, which don’t like warm hands or being kneaded too much: for this recipe you don’t need to use your hands at all since all the mixing can be done with a spoon.

There are many recipes for bara brith – some families have their own version handed down through the generations. I have not inherited a family recipe myself, so I went to the Peoples’ Collection website and found a variety of different historic recipes using a range of ingredients. I will keep things simple and give you a basic recipe before telling you about the variables.

Recipe for bara brith

• Soak 1lb (450g) of mixed fruit overnight in 12 fluid ounces (350ml; ½ pint) of warm black tea (use two or three tea bags) with 9oz (250g) of soft brown sugar.

• Sift 1lb (450gm) of self-raising flour on to the soaked fruit, add two eggs and 4 tablespoons of milk.

• Beat the mixture then spoon the batter into a well-greased or non-stick loaf tin: the batter will almost double in size when it cooks, so you need at least a 2lb tin for the quantities in this recipe, or two or more 1lb tins. You could also use a casserole dish or any other baking dish for a non-traditional circular shape. In fact the quantities given above will make more than enough to fill a 2lb tin, so I make one traditional loaf-shaped bara brith and a smaller circular one

• Bake at 180°C/Gas 4 for 1 to 1.5 hours or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. The smaller loaf, if you make one, will only need about 40 minutes, and when you take it out of the oven you might want to cover the top of the larger loaf with foil to stop it burning as it continues to cook.

• Take the cooked loaf from the oven and place it on a cooling rack; at this point you can glaze the top if you wish using honey, jam or marmalade, slightly diluted with warm water – just spoon the mixture over the cake and spread it with the back of the spoon.

The delicious smells of cooking will whet your appetite and you will probably not be able to resist enjoying a slice as soon as the cake has cooled and is easy to cut. If you make two cakes, you and the children can eat the smaller one at once and put the larger one aside for maturing for a day or two.

The recipe is very forgiving and I have even made it without measuring the ingredients and instead judging the quantities by eye – something you can do once you have made bara brith a few times and know what sort of consistency it should be and how much liquid to use. I personally use less sugar or even omit it altogether for a healthier loaf: I find that the dried fruit gives me sweetness enough. You can make a vegan version by leaving out the eggs and using plant-based milk and a gluten-free version using buckwheat flour

This version uses self-raising flour and eggs and the result is somewhere between bread and a cake. Older recipes use plain flour and yeast (for example, this traditional recipe from Bala and the result is more like fruit bread. Some say this was how bara brith was invented – on baking day, housewives would use up surplus bread dough by working in some dried fruit and baking it as a tea-time treat.

You can enrich the basic recipe by adding a pinch of salt, 4oz (112g) of melted butter or margarine (or even lard or dripping), 2 tablespoons of golden syrup or 1 of black treacle, or by using light brown, dark brown, demerara or Muscovado sugar for varying degrees of molasses flavour. You can vary the dried fruit content, using ready-mixed raisins, sultanas, currants and candied peel or adding chopped dates, apricots, crystallised ginger or glace cherries. Many recipes include a teaspoon of mixed spice and / or cinnamon and even dried ginger. Some recipes include a grated apple or the zest and juice of a lemon, while others add a generous tablespoonful or two of marmalade.

Experiment

It is up to you to experiment with different versions: just beware that there is a saying in Wales (or so it says on Wikipedia) that ‘to over-spice the bara brith’ means to do something to excess.

If this blog inspires you to try your hand at a few more traditional Welsh recipes, you will find some great ideas on the Welsh Fare page of the Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales website.

Christopher Catling

New range in old fireplace at Plas-y-llan, Eglwysbach, near Llanrwst
New range in old fireplace at Plas-y-llan, Eglwysbach, near Llanrwst

Postscript: Bara brith seems a timeless treat but this currant loaf may date only from the nineteenth century when the ingredients became cheap and plentiful and ovens were an integral part of the kitchen range. The ever-surprising and illuminating University of Wales’s Welsh Dictionary  (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru Ar Lein) gives 1888 as its first citation for bara brith – as we know it. In the eighteenth century, bara brith apparently referred to a mixed grain loaf. Perhaps readers can enlighten us further.

Inside Welsh Homes

The story of the development of the Welsh kitchen is discussed in our popular and well-illustrated Y Tu Mewn I Gartrefi Cymru / Inside Welsh Homes now out of print but available as an eBook .

Inside Welsh Homes / Y Tu Mewn i Gartrefi Cymru. ISBN: 978 1 871184 46 4
Inside Welsh Homes / Y Tu Mewn i Gartrefi Cymru. ISBN: 978 1 871184 46 4

05/05/2020

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