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Ireland Celebrates Halloween with a Bread That Predicts Your Future

From turnip jack-o-lanterns to apple bobbing fertility rituals, the Irish aren’t short on unusual Halloween traditions. But strangest of them all is barmbrack, a bread laced with fortune-telling rings, thimbles, and coins.

by Angela Hui
26 October 2016, 9:55am

Photo courtesy Donal Skehan.

From turnip jack-o-lanterns to apple bobbing fertility rituals, the Irish aren't short on unusual Halloween traditions.

But perhaps strangest of them all is barmbrack, a bread that predicts the future.

The name barmbrack is linked to the froth or "barm" leftover after fermenting beer or ale, which is mixed with sultanas and spice to make a heavy, fruity bread. The loaf is eaten throughout the year, usually served with a generous smear of Irish butter and a strong cup of tea.

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to Halloween

But when barmbrack is baked for Halloween, the recipe gets a little … weird. A pea, a matchstick, a piece of cloth, a coin, a thimble, and a ring are all incorporated into the mixture. Each item holds its own special significance, predicting the future of whoever finds it once the bread has been baked and sliced.

If you find the pea in your piece of barmbrack, you won't be getting hitched that year, while the matchstick predicts an unhappy marriage. The cloth indicates poverty, the coin means you'll end up wealthy, the thimble represents spinsterhood, and the person who finds the ring will marry. Unsurprisingly, that last one is the most coveted item.

But everyone has their own take on the small items they bake into barmbrack.

"One of the more rarer items is a small religious medal. Families would collect these medals to keep them in their homes or pin them on their chest for protection," explains Regina Sexton, Irish food and culinary historian, and lecturer at University College Cork. "Whoever found the medal will most likely end up being a priest or nun in the future."

"We've been fans of baking random things into breads in Ireland for a long time and obviously breaking our teeth at the same time."

And if you come away empty handed after taking a slice of barmbrack, you can always try again.

"When we were little, we'd eat more than you should just to try and get the prized ring," remembers Cait Griffin from Kerry in South Ireland, who grew up eating Barmbrack every year. "It was kind of like trying to get the toy in a cereal box."

The exact origins of barmbrack are largely unknown but it has long been linked to Halloween, which looms large in the Celtic calendar.

"In Ireland, the festival marks the transition point between the autumn and winter season," explains Sexton. "Folklore believed that this was a time where this world and an alternate fairy world merged, which allows us to do things we wouldn't normally be able to do like fortune telling and seeing into the future."

In Gaelic, barmbrack it's better known as báirín breac or "speckled loaf," due to the way the dough is dotted with dried fruits. Every Irish family has their own version of the recipe.

"Me and family would soak the dried fruits in whiskey, which gives it that extra edge. I know some people would steep theirs in teas," explains Donal Skehan, Irish cookbook author. "If you don't soak your fruit overnight, you won't get that rich flavour."

barmbrack-ireland-halloween

Barmbrack, an Irish bread traditionally baked at Halloween. Photo courtesy Donal Skehan.

During the late 19th century, many commercial bakeries started selling barmbrack in the hope of carrying on the tradition. But with the rise of health and safety, many bakers have stopped making the bread for fear of having their customers choke on a misplaced thimble.

"We've been fans of baking random things into breads in Ireland for a long time and obviously breaking our teeth at the same time," jokes Skehan.

Choking hazards aside, the prime function of barmbrack is the enjoyment of finding your fortune-telling item.

READ MORE: Why Apple Bobbing Is Actually a Female Fertility Ritual

"We weren't really that interested in eating Barmbrack," admits Sexton. "The point was to see who got what and what future lies ahead of them, which became a fun ritual for Halloween."

Skehan agrees that eating barmbrack at Halloween is more about fighting for the best prize—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory golden ticket scramble-style, rather than savouring the taste of the bread.

"I feel like whenever you're eating Barmbrack, it's a curse for the next year," says Skehan. "You think you're simply tucking into some bread and then you end up having your future laid out for you."

And what could be more scary than that?

Want more spooky stuff? Check out the MUNCHIES Guide to Halloween.

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