Saint Brigid’s Day


I just picked some enchanting little primroses in the garden; I literally got a OOOPS in my tummy when I saw them peeping out from behind a timber seed tray under a beech tree in the vegetable garden. I’m bringing them into the kitchen to crystallise and use them to decorate my Saint Brigid’s Day cake…it’s officially the start of Spring that we’ve been so longing for after that long, cold, wet stormy winter.
At last, after years of campaigning, the Celtic goddess, Saint Brigid has been elevated to her rightful place and has equal billing alongside Saint Patrick on the Irish calendar.
In January 2023, an official national holiday was declared to celebrate our female patron saint but ever since 2018, Irish embassies and consulates around the world have been marking the day by celebrating the remarkable creativity and achievements of women in a broad program of events worldwide.
Here in Ireland this year, we’ll celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Brigid’s passing with a special program of events nationwide. So, have you got anything planned with your friends or in your parish? I’m going to bake a cake and decorate it with the little crystallised primroses that I mentioned earlier and some little wood sorrel leaves that resemble the shape of a shamrock…a nod to Saint Patrick. I’m sharing the recipe which you may already know, but this is a keeper and I do riffs on it for Saint Patrick’s Day and for Easter Sunday as well so it’s a really good ‘master recipe’ to have in your repertoire…
Saint Brigid’s Day, or La Féile Bríde also coincides with the start of the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, one of the four major fire festivals of the year. The others in Irish folklore are Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain, celebrated by neopagans, with a variety of Celtic rituals.
Imbolc, which in old Neolithic language, translates literally to ‘in the belly’, comes halfway between the winter solstice in the spring equinox when the days  begin to lengthen,  nature wakes up and begins to leap into life and seed sowing begins.
At the Ballymaloe Cookery School, we will definitely mark the occasion by showing our students how to weave a little Saint Brigid’s Cross which they can take back to their homes all over the world. But we will hang ours over the dairy door to invoke Brigid’s blessing on our little herd of Jersey cows, who produce such beautiful rich milk and cream to make butter, cheese and yoghurt and milk kefir throughout the year. Maria Walsh, our dairy and fermentation queen and in-house herbalist will teach a Wellness Course to celebrate Saint Brigid’s Day on Thursday, 1st February here at the cookery school.  Maria will address the importance of a mindful morning practice to start your day, breath work, body self-care hacks, coffee alternatives.

She will also talk about ancestral healing modalities, hedgerow medicine focusing on seasonal Spring plants, herbal oils, tinctures, kefirs and much more….
Just as the shamrock is associated with Saint Patrick, the little woven reed or rush cross, is traditionally associated with Saint Brigid. Typically, it has four arms with a woven square in the centre, but three armed crosses are traditional in some counties. This was explained and demonstrated to me by Patricia O’Flaherty of Naomh Padraig Hand Crafts, a well-known Saint Brigid’s day cross maker at an event in the Irish Embassy in London a number of years ago.
The Saint Brigid’s cross, originally chosen by RTÉ as its logo in 1961, was dropped in 1995 in favour of a ’clean striking piece of modern design’. I personally would love to see it proudly reinstated.
So who exactly was Saint Brigid? Well, in reality, it’s difficult to differentiate between fact and myths, depending on whose research you decide to follow.
She was certainly a remarkable woman, a force to be reckoned with and one busy saint…
Dairymaids, cattle farmers, beekeepers and midwives all claim her as their patron saint as do blacksmiths, sailors, fugitives and poets….poultry keepers, scholars and travellers too. For me, Brigid was the original feminist, a trailblazer, a strong woman’s voice in a male dominated world, a feminine role model, a force to be reckoned with. Her legacy has stood the test of time, she is still widely venerated, and many lovely traditions still endure around the country, so check it out – another opportunity to get together and celebrate Mná na hÉireann.
Happy Saint Brigid’s Day.

Homemade Jersey Butter

You don’t absolutely need timber butter bats when making butter, but they do make it much easier to shape the butter into blocks. They’re more widely available than you might think, considering butter making a somewhat alternative enterprise although it’s now becoming super cool to make handmade butter. Keep an eye out in antique shops and charity shops and if you find some, snap them up. A good pair will bring you ‘butter luck’. Unsalted butter should be eaten within a few days, but the addition of salt will preserve it for two to three weeks. You can make butter with any quantity of cream (even a punnet).  Make extra and share with friends, they’ll be mightily impressed.

Darina’s Top Tips

Remember, sunlight taints butter (and milk) in a short time, so if you are serving butter outdoors, keep it covered.

Always keep butter covered in the fridge, otherwise it will become tainted by other flavours (rarely a bonus).

*This recipe may be halved for a small quantity.

  * We use 2% salt.

Makes about 1kg butter and 1 litre buttermilk

2.4 litres unpasteurised or pasteurized rich double cream at room temperature (we use our own Jersey cream)

2 tsp pure dairy salt (optional)

pair of butter bats or hands

Soak the wooden butter bats or hands in iced water for about 30 minutes so they do not stick to the butter.

Pour the double cream into a cold, sterilized mixing bowl. If it’s homogenised, it will still whip, but not as well. If you’re using raw cream and want a more traditional taste, leave it to ripen in a cool place, where the temperature is about 8°C (46°F), for up to 48 hours.

Whisk the cream at a medium speed in a food mixer until it is thick. First it will be softly whipped, then stiffly whipped. Continue until the whipped cream collapses and separates into butterfat globules. The buttermilk will separate from the butter and slosh around the bottom of the bowl. Turn the mixture into a cold, spotlessly clean sieve and drain well. The butter remains in the sieve while the buttermilk drains into the bowl. (The buttermilk can be used to make soda bread or as a thirst-quenching drink – it will not taste sour). Put the butter back into the clean mixer bowl and beat with the whisk for a further 30 seconds to 1 minute to expel more buttermilk. Remove and drain as before. Fill the bowl containing the butter with very cold water. Use the butter bats or your clean hands to knead the butter to force out as much buttermilk as possible. This is important, as any buttermilk left in the butter will sour and the butter will deteriorate quickly.

Note: If you handle the butter too much with warm hands, it will liquefy.

Drain off the water, cover and wash twice more, until the water is totally clear. Drain and divide the butter into 110g, 225g or 450g slabs. Pat into shape with the wet butter hands or bats.

N.B. Make sure the butter hands or bats have been soaked in ice-cold water for at least 30 minutes before using to stop the butter sticking to the ridges. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and keep chilled in a fridge. The butter also freezes well.

Weigh the butter and calculate 2% of the total weight of pure salt. Spread it out in a thin layer, sprinkle evenly with the dairy salt and mix well. Mix thoroughly using the butter pats, then weigh into slabs as before.

For unsalted butter, omit the salt, cover well.  Use the unsalted butter ASAP because it deteriorates faster – salt is a preservative.

Bríde Cake Bread

Our neighbours in Cullohill used to make Bride Bread on Saint Brigid’s Day and on other celebratory days throughout the year.  Enjoy it freshly baked slathered with butter.

Makes 1 loaf (8 wedges)

450g plain white flour

30g butter

1 level tsp bread soda (bicarbonate of soda)

1 level tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

75g sultanas (or more if you’d like)

a generous pinch of caraway seeds (optional)

1 fresh egg

about 350 – 425ml buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 220°C/Gas Mark 7.

Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl, dice the butter and rub into the flour.  Sieve in the bread soda, then add the salt, sugar, sultanas and caraway seeds if using. Mix well by lifting the flour and fruit up into your hands and then letting them fall back into the bowl through your fingers. This adds more air and therefore more lightness to the finished bread. Now make a well in the centre of the flour mixture. Break the egg into the base of a measuring jug and add the buttermilk to the 425ml line (the egg is part of the liquid measurement). Pour most of this milk and egg mixture into the flour.

Using one hand with the fingers open and stiff, mix in a full circular movement drawing in the flour mixture from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet and sticky.

The trick is not to over mix the dough. Mix it as quickly and gently as possible, thus keeping it light and airy. As soon as it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface.  WASH AND DRY YOUR HANDS. Roll around gently with floury hands for a second, just enough to tidy it up. Flip over and flatten slightly to about 5cm approx. Transfer to a baking tray lightly dusted with flour.   Cut in 2 directions to create 8 wedges.   Let the cuts go over the sides of the bread.  Put into the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 180°C/Gas Mark 4. Cook for 35-40 minutes. If you are in doubt about the bread being cooked, tap the bottom: if it is cooked it will sound hollow. This bread is cooked at a lower temperature than soda bread because the egg browns faster at a higher heat.

Serve freshly baked, cut into thick slices and smeared with butter and jam. Bríde bread is delicious with Cheddar cheese.

Saint Brigid’s Day Champ

A bowl of mashed potatoes flecked with green scallions or the first of the new season’s wild garlic greens with a blob of butter melting into the centre as you serve.

Serves 4-6

1.5kg unpeeled ‘old’ potatoes e.g., Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

110g chopped spring onions or wild garlic greens (allium triquetrum – see Seasonal Journal)

350ml milk

50-110g butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets in salted water.

Chop finely the spring onions or scallions.  Cover with cold milk and bring slowly to the boil.  Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse. 

Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions, beat in the butter.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. 

Serve in 1 large or 6 individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the centre.  Scallion mash may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180°C/Gas Mark 4. At this stage the texture needs to be a little softer than you would like because it will absorb the extra milk as it keeps warm and reheats.

Cover with parchment paper or a lid while it reheats so that it doesn’t get a skin and add the lump of butter just before serving.

Champ Cakes

Shape leftovers into potato cakes, cook until golden on both sides in clarified butter or butter and oil. Serve piping hot.

Saint Brigid’s Day Cake with Crystallised Primroses and Wood Sorrell

We love this super delicious cake which we organically created especially for Saint Brigid’s day, green white and gold – how naff is that…

Serves 8-10

175g soft butter

150g caster sugar

3 eggs, preferably free range

175g self-raising flour

To Decorate

Lemon Glacé Icing (see below)

Crystallised Primroses (see recipe)

8 pieces of wood sorrel leaves

1 x 20.5cm sandwich tin, buttered and floured.  Line the base of the tin with parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

Put the soft butter, caster sugar, eggs and self-raising flour into the bowl of a food processor. Whizz for a few seconds to amalgamate and turn into the prepared tin – make a dip in the centre so it rises evenly. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes approx. or until golden brown and well risen.

Cool in the tin for a few minutes, remove and cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile make the icing, once the cake is cool, pour the icing over the cake and spread gently over the sides with a palette knife.

Decorate with the crystallised primroses and wood sorrel leaves.

Serve on a pretty plate.

To Lemon Glacé Icing to ice top and sides of cake

225g icing sugar

finely grated rind of 1 lemon

2-4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl.   Add the lemon rind and enough lemon juice to make a softish icing.

Crystallized Flowers

Flowers and leaves crystallized with sugar will keep for months, although they may lose their initial vibrant colour. This is what we call a high-stool job – definitely a labour of love and not something suited to an impatient, Type A personality. The end result is both beautiful and rewarding and many family and staff wedding cakes have been embellished with crystallized flowers over the years.

Flowers and leaves must be edible and are all worth doing.

Smaller flowers are more attractive when crystallized e.g., primroses, violets, apple blossom, violas, rose petals…. We crystallize lots of leaves as well as flowers so one can make attractive arrangements.  Use fairly strong textured leaves – e.g., mint, lemon balm, sweet cicely, wild strawberry, salad burnet or marguerite daisy leaves.

The caster sugar must be absolutely dry, one could dry it in a low oven for about 30 minutes approx.

Break up the egg white slightly in a little bowl with a fork. Using a child’s paintbrush, paint the egg white very carefully over each petal and into every crevice. Pour the caster sugar over the flower with a teaspoon. Arrange the crystallized flowers carefully on silicone paper so that they retain a good shape. Leave to dry overnight in a warm, dry place such as close to an Aga, over a radiator or in an airing cupboard. When properly crystallized, these flowers will last for months, even years, provided they are kept dry. We store them in a pottery jar or a tin box with an airtight lid.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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