I love Nollaig na mBan. Mary Robinson dignified it when she visited the Womens’ Prison in Mountjoy Jail as the first public engagement of her Presidency on January 6th 1991. Every year, women get together all over Ireland, especially along the western seaboard, to celebrate this day.
In a pre-industrial time, when people on the land worked hard from dawn to dusk beginning at the start of the growing season to the end of the harvest, winter was spent subsisting, hibernating and visiting. Only the essential maintenance tasks were done. “Ní h-é lá na scolb lá na gaoithe” – the day for thatching is not the day of the storm- will resonate with all of us who experienced our recent stormy weather here in Ireland. Winter daylight hours are few in the northern hemisphere, and before rural electrification in the early 1950’s most people could afford neither candles nor oil to light their evenings.
Traditional division of labour had the men outdoors looking after livestock, tillage and crops and the women indoors rearing children, caring for elderly relatives, nourishing family and farm staff and keeping them all clean and safe from illness.
While the men got a bit of a rest during winter, the women never stopped. In our contemporary world with running hot and cold water, electricity, contraception and antibiotics, this may seem like a gender stereotype, but it was a fact based on economic realities. These were strong women, ‘Mulieres fortes’. Luxury had not yet become a commodity. But they still had lots of laughs- they made their own fun.
Both my Grandmothers bore seven children and raised six to adulthood. Their memories are still venerated in our family, and I offer this recipe in their memory and that of my own Mum who made it her ‘signature’ cake. My many Aunts and Aunts-in-law kept open, happy and welcoming houses for all us cousins too. Porter cake is the type of treat they would all have enjoyed when visiting on Nollaig na mBan and I still have the recipe on a faded piece of paper in the handwriting of my paternal grandmother, Mimi.
These women needed no detox in January. They enjoyed their cake with a little glass or two of sherry or port wine, and burned it off in their daily activities.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam dílse
Mimi’s Porter Cake
1 lb mixed raisins, sultanas, currants
1 bottle porter (½ pint)
2 ozs chopped candied peel
2 ozs candied cherries, chopped
2 ozs walnuts or almonds, chopped
1lb cream flour
1 tsp baking powder or bread soda ( they both work- I prefer baking powder)
1 tsp salt
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp mixed spice
¼ tsp ginger
8 ozs butter, straight from the fridge
8 ozs brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon treacle
Mix fruit and porter and allow to macerate, preferably overnight, but for at least one hour.
Oil and line two 1 lb loaf tins with greaseproof paper (I use old butter wrappers stored in the fridge).
Set oven to 179 degrees C and place baking shelf in the middle.
Sieve flour and spices and raising agent.
Rub butter into flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
Add sugar and mix well using a large spoon
Beat eggs and add to mixture along with macerated fruit, porter, cherries etc. and treacle.
When mixture is the right consistency, it will fall slowly from a spoon when held aloft over the mixing bowl. Don’t make the mixture too wet or the fruit may sink.
Divide mixture between two loaf tins and bake about 1 hour. Check after 45 mins…ovens vary, especially fan ovens.
Allow to cool on a wire rack in tin and unmould when cold
This is much better after a day or two, if it survives that long! Enjoy it
Beannachtaí na Féile