Saga of the speckled bread
The rise, fall and resurgence of the delicious Bara Brith
On a crisply sunny Welsh day in Porthmadog, my husband, I and our two children stroll down a long row of colourful shops with bunting and blackboards out front promising all manner of marvels. It’s a bright, breezy day but we’ve been walking a while and can do with a break and some grub. Within minutes, we arrive at a little yellow bakery with the most delicious smells wafting from it. Inside, it’s dark, cool and busy. And so full of cake, we are unable to decide which one to have with our hot chocolate. The waitress recommends the speckled bread (Bara Brith in Welsh) because they, she reckons, bake the best. The regulars endorse her recommendation, saying it is the most Welsh of cakes, and a must on a holiday in Wales. What is brought to us is moist, richly fruity, and strangely reminiscent of afternoons long ago. With good reason too, because its bouquet of summer fruits came with the scent of tea.
Since the 19th century, this flavoursome fruit cake full of local fruits and occasionally not-so-local spices has been flavoured with Indian tea. When tea from Assam and Darjeeling arrived in Wales, it was lapped up with as much enthusiasm as in the rest of Britain, and also poured into the luscious fruity loaves. It became a British teatime staple, adorning tables in Wales and beyond for two centuries. But then suddenly it fell from grace, becoming the speciality of only obscure little Welsh bakeries that kept up traditions.
Bara Brith buffs at the bakery couldn’t agree on a reason for the cake’s dip in popularity. Perhaps, they said, it was because it had a whiff of uncool colonialism about it, flavoured as it was with purloined Indian spices and tea. Or, as another resident expert opined, it was seen to be as fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned as teatime itself; the preserve of the posh or the pensioner. As the cake was shunned, supermarkets stopped stocking it. Then came the rebirth of nationalism, rekindling interest in the traditional and hyper-local. And the Welsh, like much of the world, reasserted their pride in their lineage, language and once beloved Bara Brith. More importantly, then came The Great British Bake Off, possibly the most popular reality TV show in the British Isles, and with its serving up of the previously popular speckled bread, it began gracing tea tables all over again.
Hence our find in a lovely little bakery in a small Welsh town. Though no longer a by-product of imperialism, the cake still smells deliciously of chai on winter afternoons, and the dried, glazed fruits that made our Christmas in Kolkata especially scrumptious so long ago. And once we crack the secret to making the perfect speckled bread, I can see its glorious, moist fruitiness becoming a Sunday teatime staple for us too.