Ara'n Breac Celtic speckled tea loaf

3:10 pm on 13 October 2017
Ara'n brea: Celticspeckled tea loaf

Ara'n brea: Celticspeckled tea loaf Photo: Benjamin Dearnley Photography Pty Ltd

Serves 8-10 / Ready in 4-6 hours

Also known as barmbrack. 'Barm' comes from the Celtic word for fermented yeast and brack describes the light caught by gemstones. This is a delightful addition to the breakfast or afternoon tea table. Not exactly a bread and not quite a cake but moreish and delectable all the same. Traditionally, this loaf is served at Halloween and hidden inside are small trinkets - a ring, a coin, a small piece of cloth, a pea, a thimble or a button. Respectively, these are symbols for an imminent suitor, the arrival of money, the loss of money, abundance, a woman and a man never to marry.

Barm is made from the sourdough starter and occasionally fed with dark ale or stout. It has a dark colour and a complex, yeasty flavour. The barm can be maintained as you would a rye starter and can be used as a leaven.


For the barm (makes 380g)

  • 100 g (31⁄2 oz) lees (sediment) from a naturally alive, brewed in the bottle, dark ale or stout
  • 100 g (31⁄2 oz) active rye sourdough starter (page 172)
  • 80 g (23⁄4 oz) wholemeal spelt flour
  • 100 g (31⁄2 oz) water
  • For the loaf
  • 250 ml (9 fl oz/1 cup) brewed strong black tea (I like a mix of Keemun, Yunnan and a small pinch of Russian Caravan leaves)
  • 70 g (21⁄2 oz) maple syrup, plus 1 tablespoon for the glaze
  • 40 g (11⁄2 oz) barley malt or molasses
  • zest of 1 lemon, plus 60 g
  • (2 oz/1⁄4 cup) juice
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 280 g (10 oz/2 cups) currants
  • 3 teaspoons caraway seeds
  • 250 g (9 oz/1 cup) float-tested barm, or leaven (see above)
  • 440 g (151⁄2 oz) unbleached white spelt flour mixed with 110 g (4 oz) wholemeal spelt
  • 100 g (31⁄2 oz) ghee or unsalted butter, melted


Make the barm by combining the ingredients in a bowl until no dry spots remain.

Cover loosely with a tea towel (dish towel) and leave at room temperature for 6-10 hours, or until it is vibrantly bubbling and alive.

Do the float test and use the barm for this recipe, or maintain and feed as you would your starter, adding beer lees in place of water, if and when you have them.

To make the loaf, dissolve the maple syrup and barley malt in the tea. Let cool completely.

Add the lemon zest and juice, sea salt, currants and caraway seeds. Check the mix is no warmer than body temperature. Add your active barm or leaven and stir, then tip in your flour.

Mix well - this is a sticky mixture so you may prefer to use a spoon rather than your hands.

Mix in the ghee or butter until the dough is smooth but there is no need to knead.

Grease and line a 20 cm (8 in) round cake tin with buttered baking paper. Scrape the dough into the prepared tin and cover with a damp tea towel.

Leave to rise at room temperature for 3-5 hours (longer in very cold weather), or until the dough has doubled to completely fill the space in the tin.

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Bake the loaf in the centre of the oven for 40-50 minutes.

Remove from the oven and immediately brush the top with the extra maple syrup.

Wait 5 minutes before carefully removing the loaf from the tin and transferring it to a wire rack to cool.

This is best cut once cooled completely. Serve with butter or cultured butter.

Making rye starter from scratch

It takes two to three weeks of daily care to nurture flour and water into vibrant activity, but once you have done this, your starter could become a part of your legacy. I made mine in a class with Australia's master baker John Downes in 1986 and I gift it freely and have introduced it to numerous other bakers' starters since. If you forget to feed the mix for a day or two the sourness will greatly increase. This is because you are favouring lactobacilli at the expense of yeasts.

Makes 125 g (41/2 oz)  / Ready in 14-21 days

  • 75 g (23⁄4 oz) water
  • 50 g (13⁄4 oz) biodynamic or organic wholemeal rye flour

In a spotlessly clean, large non-reactive ceramic or glass bowl, combine the water and flour, and whisk to a smooth batter. Notice how the mix smells.

Cover with a clean tea towel (dish towel) or muslin (cheesecloth) and leave to stand at room temperature, ideally 23-28°C (73-82°F), for 24 hours.

The next day, stir, smell and recover.

Each day, for the next 10-14 days, discard all but 1 tablespoon of the mixture.

Sniff the mixture and taste - it should start to smell and taste slightly sour and eventually quite fruity and effervescent as it becomes alive with yeast activity.

Put the reserved tablespoon of starter in a clean bowl and feed the starter by adding 75 g (2½ oz) water and 50 g (1¾ oz) biodynamic or organic rye flour.

Mix together well, making sure the flour is well incorporated. Cover and leave for 6-10 hours.

Repeat the process once or twice a day, for 5-7 more days, or until the mix has a fruity 'yeasty' smell and it is filled with lots of large gas bubbles.

Put in a glass jar (only ever half fill the jar), cover with a clean cloth or muslin and secure.

After feeding the starter, note the level in the jar. At the next feeding, you should see a 'tide mark' showing that the starter rose and then fell.

The starter is ready to use when it reliably doubles in volume over a 6-10 hour period at room temperature.

When ready, your active starter can be used as it is or to create a larger volume of active 'leaven'.

If you're not baking regularly, keep your starter in a small, clean glass jar with a lid on in the fridge.

A day or two before using your starter, take it out of the fridge and feed it at 6-hourly intervals until vibrant and active.

A cold sleepy starter that has not been used in over a week may need three or four feeds to return to a suitable activity level to leaven your recipes.

From Afternoons

Find a Recipe

or browse by title

What's in Season - October