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Tea Bread from the Victorian Kitchen

To avoid upsetting anyone, or being accused of favouritism, this month’s recipe and the Taste of History will simply be called Tea Bread. The different countries which make up the United Kingdom, each have their own version and within each region there are many ‘original’ recipes! You see why I am so cautious!

In Wales this is known as Bara Brith, in Ireland it is Barm Brack and, as yet the only names I can find for the Scottish version is Fruit Bread or ‘Jock’s Loaf’, but I suspect this latter one isn’t its real name. English recipes seem to be called after the county, town or even village from where each is said to originate.

Both the names Bara Brith and Barm Brack, when loosely translated, mean ‘speckled bread’ and this does describe, very accurately, the appearance the dried fruit gives to the finished loaf.

The word Barm can also refer to the froth from fermented ale. As all these breads would have originally been leavened with yeast, it is easy to see how this became incorporated into the title.

So, from all of the above, it is possible to deduce that wherever this was made and whatever its name, historically this was made from flour, yeast, liquid and dried fruit. Some have spices and once sugar became cheaper this too would have been added.

However, when another, more reliable raising agent became more widely available, this was used in place of yeast. This is when Bicarbonate of Soda enters the story! Not only was this more reliable, but the fruit loaf was much quicker to make as the dough didn’t need to be left to rise.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this product as it has a couple of rather unpleasant side effects. It imparts a bitter taste, and it gives a bilious yellow colour to light crumbed baked goods. Both of these are easily hidden in things like gingerbread or chocolate cake, but the fruit bread contained no ingredient which could work in the same way to mask either the colour or the flavour.

Strong tea now makes an appearance, and the word Tea frequently replaced the word fruit in the recipe’s name. Left over tea, was strained, poured over the dried fruit and left to soak for some time. It was then used as some of the necessary liquid and, more importantly, it provided the masking qualities required to make this bread pleasant to look at and to eat.

And so, this recipe remained unchanged for a considerable number of years. That is until Baking Powder and then Self Raising Flour became products available to the home cook in the mid 19th century. These then became the raising agents of choice in many recipes, not just this tea bread. In theory the strong dark coloured tea was now no longer needed as the new raising agents did not leave any unpleasant side effects but, tea as the main liquid in this bread, was here to stay!

For any readers who might be interested in the key ingredients used in Baking Powder, here they are, and the proportions used – one part bicarbonate of soda (an alkali) and two parts cream of tartar (an acid). This latter ingredient is the one which neutralises the unpleasant side effects of the alkali. Self Raising flour is plain flour with baking powder added to it in roughly the following amounts which home cooks might find useful, – 4oz (125g) plain flour + 1 teaspoon baking powder.

From all the research about this latest recipe I was surprised that it was only in Ireland were there any ‘traditions’ associated with the old, yeasted bread and even here they were by no means universal across the country!

In some areas this was made at Hallowe’en. In these fruit breads, like in our Christmas Puddings, token was added, and these told the fortune for the following year for the ‘lucky’ recipient. Many were strange and were generally filled with doom and gloom, for example, find the stick and your marriage for the next year would be unhappy, find the piece of cloth and bad luck awaited you after New Year’s Eve!

In other parts of the country Christmas was the time for making this. Bakers would make these as offerings of thanks to their loyal customers of the previous year. Also, if one of these was able to be kept uncut for the whole year to come, they were insured against harm or accident.

To some people New Year’s Eve was the time when this should be made. A number of rituals surrounded the ‘Bringing in the New Year’ and these all involved this fruit bread in some way. If these were followed to the letter good luck was assured for the next twelve months and . . . . . . but, we won’t dwell on what might happen if they weren’t!

Remember that the recipe given below is only one of many and there can be a range of different ingredients but, they all share one thing in common – they are very tasty!  Tea Bread is another forgotten part of our culinary history. So why not try it sliced and spread with butter or even toasted as many of our ancestors did. And as you do, just think that yet another forgotten dish has been introduced to a new generation of Home Bakers!


Tea Bread


1lb (450g) mixed fruit

8oz (225g) granulated sugar

½ pt (250ml) warm strong tea

1 large egg

2 heaped tablespoon marmalade

1lb (450g) self raising flour


  1. Put the dried fruit, sugar and tea into a bowl and leave for about 12 hours or overnight
  2. Add the egg, marmalade and mix these in well
  3. Add the flour and again mix in well
  4. Spoon the mixture evenly into 2 x 2lb loaf tins lined with parchment or loaf tin liners or 2 similar sized lined cake tins can be used
  5. Bake for 1 ½ hours at 160C,150C Fan, Gas Mark 3 or until the tea breads are fully cooked. Allow them to cool for 20 minutes in the tins before turning out onto a cooling tray
  6. Once they are completely cold, wrap well and keep in a cool place for a week before using. After this time one can, be frozen whilst the other is used

A few notes about this –

Do not be tempted to cook the whole mixture in one deep tin. It is too big. If you haven’t got suitable sized tins look for what you might be able to use as an alternative. If you only have one suitable tin, then the recipe can easily be halved.

These are now usually cooked in loaf tins as it makes slicing them much easier but if all you have is a round cake tin then this is fine to use.

In the modern era of tea bags rather than tea pots I usually use 2 tea bags to the full quantity mixture, but this is usually to get the depth of colour. You can use one if you prefer a lighter coloured mix.

For the dried fruit you can use any combination you like. Traditionally the fruit used would have been raisins and currants as well as candied peel (home made, naturally!), but many people might prefer to use sultanas. It really is up to you.

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