Andy waxes lyrical about his favourite coffee-stop snack
The Welsh call it bara brith, the Irish barm brack and the English, more prosaically, tea bread. The first time I tried it was on a solo cycle tour to south Wales as a teenager; Madelaine discovered it in the cafes of Pembrokeshire, on the first Bicycle Beano holiday we ever went on. So here in the Beano household, it’s always Welsh and it’s always called bara brith.
Bara brith (literally “speckled bread”) is a tea bread, which doesn’t mean you eat it for tea – though you can do. It can be made with bread dough or, more commonly, with baking powder for a more cake-like treat. Either way, the main ingredients are flour, sugar, and dried fruit soaked in tea. It’s a dense, substantial loaf packed with juicy fruit, and is traditionally sliced and spread with lashings of butter. I have seen folk put jam on it as well, but such people are rampant hedonists and are best avoided.
From a cyclist’s point of view it’s the ideal snack. Forget your Power Bars and electrolyte drinks, a couple of slices of this will see you over the biggest hills. The sugar provides instant energy; the dried fruit is absorbed more slowly and provides another boost, then finally the complex carbohydrates in the flour come in, fuelling your body for hours. Not only that, it’s very low in fat… right up until the moment you slap that butter on it. Sandwich two slices together with butter in between, wrap in cling film and stick them in your pannier or jersey back pocket, and you’ve got a perfect snack while on the road.
This is my recipe. It’s loosely based on one from the Felin Geri Watermill in Newcastle Emlyn, as featured in the 1987 book A Taste of Wales. This odd book was published by the Wales Tourist Board and sponsored by that well-known Welsh drinks producer, Piper-Heidseck Champagne. (Don’t ask me.)
You can use any kind of tea you like; one coffee shop near Beano HQ* makes its tea bread using a different tea every day. The Earl Grey is particularly nice, but Darjeeling, Assam and English Breakfast all work well too, as does PG Tips if you’re pushed. The tea only affects the flavour subtly, so even if you’d normally avoid Earl Grey it’s worth a try in the loaf.
The recipe uses wholemeal flour but I often use half wholemeal, half white, which makes for a slightly lighter loaf. I use sultanas but some prefer mixed fruit. Personally I’ve never seen the point of tiny lumps of dry lemon peel in my food.
Traditionally you soak the fruit overnight in cold tea, but (and this is my major contribution to the advancement of cooking technology) I find you can get equally good results by simmering the fruit with the tea in a saucepan for a few minutes. This is handy if, like me, you find yourself on a cold dark winter’s afternoon thinking “I really fancy some bara brith now – I’ll just pop back in time 24 hours and put the fruit on to soak.”
I’ve not tried making a vegan version, though one should be possible with a suitable egg replacement (and spread with vegan margarine, obviously) An interesting vegan recipe here uses flax seed; if you try it, do let us know if it works.
The recipe (at last)
The quantities below will make two loaves.
- 450g sultanas (or mixed fruit)
- 350ml freshly-brewed tea
- 450g wholemeal flour (or half white, half wholemeal)
- 4 level teaspoons baking powder
- 2 teaspoons mixed spice
- 250g demerara sugar
- 2 beaten eggs
- A little milk
The quantities given will make two loaves. One can go in the freezer, the other can be eaten warm or cold. It’ll last several days in a tin, if you can avoid eating it that long.
Start by heating the oven to 160°C (gas mark 3). Grease two 450g loaf tins and line them with baking parchment.
Make a big pot of tea. Measure out 350ml of it, pour into a saucepan and add the sultanas.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, if there’s any tea left in the pot, have a nice cuppa.
Sift the flour, baking powder and spice into a mixing bowl.
Add the sugar.
When the sultanas have had their 10 minutes, tip them into the bowl along with their tea.
Mix well, then add the beaten eggs and mix again.
The dough should now be a thick dropping consistency – you should be able to scoop some up with a wooden spoon and watch it ooze slowly off the spoon in big gobbets. If it’s too thick add a little milk to soften it. (If it’s too soggy add a bit more flour, you’ll probably get away with it.)
Divide the mixture between the two loaf tins, put in the oven and bake for 1 to 1½ hours.
When it’s ready, it should be a deep brown colour on top. Tip it out of the tin and check that the bottom is firm in the middle. If it’s not, stick it back in for a bit longer. The most common problem with bara brith making is ending up with a soggy middle to your loaf.
When it’s ready, allow to cool on a rack then slice and serve with butter.
* The Garthowen Garden Centre in Four Marks, Hampshire. Excellent coffee shop, slap bang in the middle of fantastic cycling country and a convenient 15-mile ride from Beano HQ.