My year is punctuated by little highlights, occasions to look forward to and celebrate. I particularly love St Brigid’s Day on February 1. I’m all set to celebrate the story of this feisty woman with my students from all over the world and everyone else around me.
This is a quintessentially Irish celebration, St Brigid’s Day or Lá Féile Bríde also marks the beginning of spring, the season of hope and new life and comes about half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, when days begin to lengthen. In pagan times it was referred to as imbolc or imbolg which in old Neolithic language translates literally to ‘in the belly’. Imbolc is one of the four major fire festivals referred to in Irish mythology, the others are Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain.
Brigid, an icon for women, was born near Faughart just north of Dundalk, Co Louth, in the 5th century. She is the goddess of fertility in Celtic mythology, patron saint of dairy and founded the first monastery in Ireland in Kildare.
Lá Féile Bríde🌻My favourite day of the year,1st day of Celtic spring
The dandelion lights its spark
Lest Brigid find the wayside dark
And Brother Wind comes rollicking
For joy that she has brought the spring.
Young lambs and little furry folk
Many legends are associated with Brigid who by all accounts was an extraordinary woman. So I’m overjoyed that at last there is a movement to elevate St Brigid to her rightful place beside St Patrick as our female patron saint.
Last year, and once again this year, there will be a celebration of Lá Féile Bríde at the Irish embassy in London, a gathering to celebrate not just St Brigid but the achievements of Irish women around the globe. Just as the shamrock is associated with St Patrick, the little woven cross, made of rushes, is associated with St Brigid and was chosen as the RTÉ logo when the station launched in 1961, and it was used until 1995. Let’s bring it back and display it proudly as a beautiful symbol of our culture.
Last year, St Brigid’s cross-maker extraordinaire, Patricia O’Flaherty, went over clutching a bag of freshly cut rushes to demonstrate how to make the traditional St Brigid’s cross at the Irish embassy in London (www.naomhpadraighandcrafts.com). She makes many versions and I was intrigued to learn from her that originally all counties in Ireland had different patterns which sometimes even varied from parish to parish.
To invoke Saint Brigid’s blessing we have a little cross made of local rushes hanging over the door in our micro dairy to protect our small Jersey herd which produces the most delicious rich milk.
My research into St Brigid mentioned not only dairy but also honey and the tradition of eating a big plate of floury boiled potatoes slathered in rich homemade butter on St Brigid’s Day or St Brigid’s Eve.
So here’s a recipe for how to make your own home churned butter. It’s super easy. We use our own cream, but one can make butter with any good rich cream. Just pop it into a bowl, whisk until it becomes stiff, continue until the butter globules separate from from the buttermilk. Strain, wash well, salt generously, and pat into little slabs or butter balls — easy-peasy. Impressive and delicious, even for chefs, to slather over potatoes or a thick slice of warm soda bread or spotted dog. Pancakes were also mentioned in several articles as was cheese and honey so that gives me lots of scope.
I’ve also included the recipe for our favourite St Brigid’s Day cake.So let’s all make or buy a little St Brigid’s cross and make St Brigid’s Day into a real celebration, sharing a traditional meal around the kitchen table with family and friends.
110g (4ozs) self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
25g (1oz) caster sugar
pinch of salt
1 organic egg
110ml (4fl ozs) whole milk
Clarified butter, for greasing Honey to serve
Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl, add the sugar and salt and stir to mix. Make a well in the centre, crack in the egg and whisk, gradually drawing in the flour from the edge. Add the milk gradually, whisking all the time, to form a smooth batter.
Lightly grease a griddle or frying pan and warm it over a moderate heat. Drop 3 individual tablespoons of the batter into the pan, keeping well apart so they don’t stick together. Cook for about 2 minutes or until bubbles appear on the surface and begin to burst and the drop scones are golden underneath, then flip them over and cook on the other side for a minute or until golden on this side as well.
Remove from the pan and serve warm with butter and jam, apple jelly, lemon curd or, if you are like my children, chocolate spread. (You can wrap the drop scones in a clean tea towel to keep warm while you make the rest.)
We love this super delicious cake which we created especially for St Brigid’s day, green white and gold – how naff is that...
175g (6oz) soft butter
150g (5oz) caster sugar
3 eggs, preferably free range
175g (6oz) self-raising flour
Tart lemon icing, see below 8 pieces of kumquat compote — drained
8 wood sorrel or lemon balm leaves
For the kumquat compote
235g (8½ oz) kumquats
200ml (7fl oz) water
110g (4oz) sugar
For the Tart Lemon Icing
160g (6oz) icing sugar
Finely grated rind of ½ lemon
2-3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 x 20.5cm (8 inch) sandwich tin, buttered and floured
Line the base of the tin with parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
First make the kumquat compote: Slice the kumquats into four or five rounds depending on size, remove the seeds. Put the kumquats into a saucepan with the water and sugar and let them cook very gently, covered, for half an hour or until tender.
Note: This compote keeps for weeks in the fridge.
Put the soft butter, caster sugar, eggs and self-raising flour into the bowl of a food processor. Whizz for a few seconds to combine 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 Tart Lemon Icing: Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl. Add the lemon rind and enough lemon juice to make a softish 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 candied kumquats and wood sorrel or lemon balm leaves.
Everyone should be able to make butter. Let’s face it, most of us have over whipped cream from time to time, don’t dream of throwing it out, whisk for a minute or two more and you’ll have butter. If there are butter bats in the house it makes it easier to shape the butter into blocks or balls but they are absolutely not essential. They’re more widely available than you might think, in kitchen shops, but also keep an eye in antique 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. Also, you can make butter with any quantity of cream but the amount used in the recipe below will keep you going for a week or so and give you enough to share with friends (though not in my house). Remember, sunlight taints butter (and milk) in a short time, so if you are serving butter outdoors, keep it covered.
Makes about 1kg (2¼lb) butter and 1 litre (1¾ pints) buttermilk
2.4 litres (4 pints) unpasteurised or pasteurised double cream at room temperature
2 tsp dairy salt (optional)
Pair of butter bats or hands (optional)
If you have wooden butter bats or butter hands, soak them in iced water for about 30 minutes so they do not stick to the butter.
Pour the double cream into a cold, sterilised 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 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 a clean bowl and beat with the whisk for a further 30 seconds to 1 minute to expel more buttermilk.
Remove and sieve 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 go off quickly. If you handle the butter too much with warm hands, it will liquefy.
Drain the water, cover and wash twice more, until the water is totally clear. Weigh the butter into 110g (4oz), 225g (8oz) or 450g (1lb) slabs. Pat into shape with the wet butter hands or bats. 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.
If you wish to add salt, you will need ¼ teaspoon of plain dairy salt for every 110g (4oz ) of butter. Before shaping the butter, spread it out in a thin layer and sprinkle evenly with dairy salt. Mix thoroughly using the butter pats, then weigh into slabs as before.
I much prefer unadulterated butter, rather than butters with additives that change the texture. So if you want to be able to spread butter easily, simply leave it out of the fridge for a few hours in a covered container.
You can make it in the round traditional way or in a loaf tin which is more convenient for slicing or sandwiches.
1 lb (450g) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon breadsoda Sour milk or buttermilk to mix — 15 fl ozs (425 ml) approx
Oatmeal, sesame seeds or kibbled wheat (optional)
First fully preheat your oven to 230C/450F/regulo 8.
Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet.
When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well floured work surface. Scoop it into the oiled tin, sprinkle with oatmeal and sesame or kibbled wheat seeds if you enjoy them.
Place in the hot oven, immediately turning down the oven to 200C/400F/regulo 6 for 45 minutes. Remove from the tin and return the bread to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes or until fully cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.
White Soda Scones
Make the dough as above but flatten the dough into a round 1 inch (2.5cm) deep approx. Cut into scones. Cook for 20 minutes approx in a hot oven (see above).