17th March is St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland and to celebrate this event we, in the Victorian Kitchen, thought that the Taste of History should reflect this.
Nowadays, this day on our festive calendar celebrates Irish Culture with parades, special foods, music, dancing, drinking and a lot of people wearing the colour green!
However, the day itself is actually steeped in history and the marking of it dates back more than 1,500 years. Here I shall try to give you a potted history of the man, the Saint and the celebrations.
Historians believe he was born in Britain near the end of the 4th century. As a young boy of around 16 he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold as a slave to, and here stories range from, an Irish goat farmer to a Celtic priest. You the reader can take your pick, but they converge again and state that he was enslaved for 6 years before somehow escaping back to Britain. He then became a Christian priest and returned to Ireland as a Missionary, preaching the Gospel and converting the Irish people to Christianity.
He died on the 17th March 461AD and I can find little evidence to support the idea that this day was, initially, anything other than a Holy Day when people attended Mass at their local church to venerate this remarkable man. As this day always falls during the period called Lent when there were many restrictions on life and the foods which could be eaten, this celebration may have allowed a relaxation, for one day only, of these strict rules. This relaxation possibly allowed people to have a drink . . . . or two as well!
So, how did this quiet celebration morph into the razzamatazz of today? Read on and you will find that its roots lie not in the soil of Ireland but in the souls of the Irish people wherever they are in the world.
In order to find the first ever record of a St Patrick’s Day parade we have to travel overseas and go back in time to 1600 and visit the Spanish Colony of St Augustine in Florida in America. This first ever parade was organised by the Spanish Colony’s Irish priest – Ricardo Artur. So successful was this, it was repeated the following year and from this a tradition was born which spread to all parts of the country and eventually the world.
There are a couple of stories which have become associated with St Patrick. One is that he was reputed to have banished all the snakes from Ireland by driving them into the sea. (Incidentally, there is no evidence that there ever were any snakes on the island of Ireland, but why should we let the truth get in the way of a good story!)
The other is to do with the Shamrock which is the national emblem of Ireland. These three leafed clovers have been regarded as sacred by the Celts from the very earliest of times. St Patrick is said to have used this as a visual explanation of the Holy Trinity to his Christian followers. So important was the Shamrock and its colour to the Irish that by the 17th century both these had become symbols of the emerging nationalist movement.
Some foods are also traditional to this day. In the 19th century it was Boiled Bacon and cabbage but others soon became popular like . . . .
Boiled Bacon, potatoes and soda bread – this was another traditional family meal.
Boxty a potato cake
Dublin Coddle – a stew using Irish sausages, potatoes and beans is another favourite. This has as a key ingredient – Guinness, a dry stout.
This last ingredient leads very nicely into our choice of Irish Plum Cake as our Taste of History. Now, before anyone questions where plums can easily and cheaply be obtained mid March, let me reassure you. This cake does not contain any at all. Plum is an old term for dried fruit. So, Plum Cake is a fruit cake.
What makes this cake Irish is the use of Porter or Stout as one of the important ingredients. Porter nowadays is more difficult to source than stout so this is what is usually used. Porter is a dark beer which has been known in Ireland since the 19th century and it was drunk both there and wherever the Irish communities were on the mainland.
Historically Porter beer is made using highly dried brown malt. It is a middle strength beer in terms of both alcohol content and the hoppy taste. It was also usually made using soft water, which of course made it an ideal drink to brew in Ireland.
Some historians believe that Porter has been known about since the early 18th century and one maintains that it originated with a brewer called Harwood who made it to imitate the ‘Three Threads Mixture’ of pale ale, beer and Twopenny (a Scottish type of pale ale). This mixture was sold for 2d per Scottish pint which was equivalent to 3 English pints! Porter was certainly on offer in London in the 18th century and it reputedly takes this name because it was the favourite tipple of street or river porters!
Stout, which is its almost modern-day equivalent, is a stronger version of Porter. This is very dark, almost black, with a strong bitter taste with a pronounced dry malt flavour and it has been known by this name since around 1677.
And now this historical tale reaches the recipe. Some of the modern-day ones I have looked at suggest that the dried fruit and the stout are heated together, rather like when making a boiled fruit cake. The Victorian recipe given below does not give this instruction, and, as I have been making this for over 50 years, I see no reason to change it. You may want to experiment!
Irish Plum Cake
1lb (500g) plain flour
½ lb (250g) butter
¼ lb (125g) currants
¼ lb (125g) raisins
¼ lb (125g) candied peel
¾ lb (375g) soft brown sugar
2 rounded teaspoons mixed spice
Grated zest 1 lemon
3 medium eggs – beaten
2 gills – ½ pt (220ml) scant measure porter or stout
1 rounded teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- Sieve flour into a large mixing bowl
- Rub in the butter to form a mixture resembling fine breadcrumbs
- Add the dried fruit, sugar, spice, candied peel and lemon zest
- Heat the porter/stout to slightly warm, add this to the bicarbonate of soda and mix well. Allow to cool slightly
- Add the eggs and the porter/stout mix to the dry ingredients and mix very well for about 5 minutes using a wooden spoon
- Put the mixture into a round deep cake tin – 8” (225mm) completely lined with parchment or a paper liner and bake for 2 – 2 ½ hours at Gas Mark 2 – 3, 140/150C fan oven until it is fully cooked
This, being a moist fruit cake, keeps well. The stout does give a very different taste to the cake, but it is pleasant. Some modern recipes suggest increasing the amount of mixed spice, this is for readers to experiment with if they wish. I have never felt this was needed with this recipe.
However, I do offer the following as a possible alternative to stout which does have a strong flavour. A dark beer or ale could be used instead.
Also note that the measurements given for teaspoons are rounded ones. What this means is that there is as much mixture above the bowl of the spoon as there is below. This difference is something to beware of when using old recipes!