As you know -- or should know -- colcannon is the traditional food of Ireland and is eaten at this time of year in many parts of the country in celebration of Hallowe’en -- or Halloweve as we called it when I was a boy. Our neighbours over in England (a small island off the east coast of Ireland) tended to ignore the holiday, focusing more on Guy Fawkes Day on November 5, when bonfires and fireworks would mark the day.
The ‘trick or treat’ scenario was different in those days, too. Children (and some adults) would dress up in costume and mask and go door to door. In more rural parts, particularly, this involved the participants doing ‘a turn’, usually a song or a recitation. In return for this entertainment there were the same rewards handed out that you see here in the US. More of a treat for a trick scenario and strongly reminiscent of the old mumming tradition. It was important, though, that your identity not be guessed. I don’t recall a penalty for this but certainly your neighbours would try hard to discover who was behind the disguise. My father had some difficulty in this regard because he had a beard at a time when it was very unusual in Ireland. (I learned at his wake that he was know in the extended family as ‘Hairy Paddy’ to distinguish him from the many other Paddy Bolgers). And, of course, any adults involved in the entertainment would be offered a drink rather than sweets and that was usually when the Da was found out.
In early October cheap Hallowe’en masks would start appearing in the shops and, a little later, commercially made barmbrack would appear, too.
Barmbrack (from the Irish Gaelic ‘bairín breac’ -- speckled loaf) is a type of sweet fruit bread. Not as rich or fine as a cake but definitely more festive than regular bread. This commercial brand would be shaped much like a regular loaf of bread and have a brass ring, wrapped in waxpaper, somewhere in the loaf . Whoever found this ring would be promised good luck. The homemade, traditional barmbrack would more often be circular and flat in shape and have a ring, a button, a thimble and a sixpence. If you found the ring it meant you’d get married in the ensuing year. A sixpence promised wealth, a button bachelorhood and a thimble meant that if you were an unmarried woman, that was not going to change that year. These same ‘charms’ would be put into colcannon but really barmbrack was the preferred medium. The ‘charm’ was more quickly seen in a sliced of bread and the removal was a much less messy affair than extracting a waxpaper package from mashed potatoes. And, sometimes there would be other ‘charms’ -- a pea or a bean meant poverty for the next year …
The following recipe is a fairly standard one and you are free to play around with it. I’ve heard of people using cranberries, blueberries, mixed fruit. You might spice it a bit differently. Whatever works.
½ lb. all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 oz. sugar
10 oz. raisins
1/2 tsp mixed spice
Preheat the oven to 350°
In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, sugar, raisins and mixed spice. Make a well and break in the egg, then use a wooden spoon to mix it with the dry ingredients. Add a little bit of water as needed and make the dough fairly wet.
Sometimes people soak the raisins overnight in tea and/or whiskey. That does add a certain je ne sais quoi but it makes the fruit very mushy and hard to work with.
LIne and butter a 2 lb. loaf tin
Spoon the dough into the tin, add whatever ‘charms’ you have in mind and place the loaf tin on the middle shelf in the oven and bake for about 1 hour.
You can put it on a rack and let it cool a bit and slice and eat with butter. You can store it for a few days -- it seems to benefit from a good rest. At that point, I like to slice it and toast it. It makes a perfect toast with good butter.