I’ve been celebrating Imbolc for over a decade and each year I discover more layers to its mythology and food lore. Last year over at Gather Victoria Patreon, I created a Cailleach Ale Cake (the oldest spirit in the world) in honor of the dark counterpart of Brigid, the Gaelic Cailleach, one of the oldest deities of Ireland and Scotland – if not the oldest. Like many winter witches on the European continent, the Cailleach is the eternal goddess of nature who takes the form of a hag or a crone in the winter months. I wanted to share this recipe here because hers is the less remembered part of the Imbolc story – that darkness always precedes the light.
According to folklore, the Cailleach Bhéarra or the Hag of Beare was a guardian of a mountain well from which flowed a “marvelous ale” that guarded against illness and death. On the eve of Bride, the Cailleach annually renews her youth. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks from the well and is transformed into Brigid or Bride (bright or exalted one) who turns the bare earth green again. Ale was also associated with St. Brigid, amongst her many food miracles is the turning of water into ale. One Imbolc fertility custom involved farmers pouring a cup of ale over their plow while asking St. Brigid to bless it.
In some folktales the Cailleach keeps Brigid imprisoned (often in a mountainous tower) over the winter months. Each spring Brigid escapes and the Cailleach then turns into a large stone. This story seems to be writ large in the megalithic monuments of Ireland – many of which are reputed to have been created by the Cailleach herself! Passage tombs, cairns, and chambers at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo and the Mound of the Hostages found on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, feature alignments preceding and after the cross-quarter days of Imbolc (and Samhain). This means the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox- which falls this year on February 3rd or 4th (depending on where you live).
At Sliabh na Cailleach or ‘the Cailleach’s Mountain’ a chamber (Cairn L) is penetrated by a shaft of sunlight at dawn illuminating a six-foot-tall white standing stone. The lake Lough Dá Gé, the Lake of the Two Geese, the rising sun is reflected in the water during this same time period and it is said that the Cailleach is giving birth to the sun. Many megalithic burial tombs, with their long passages into interior chambers, such as the Loughcrew Cairns are seen as symbolic wombs. Today they are known as passage tombs because Neolithic peoples utilized them as burial grounds but their origins are far older.
Brú Na Bóinne commonly referred to as “Newgrange” dates from 3200 B.C. 500 years older than the pyramids at Giza and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. In folklore they are known as Fairy Knowles or Sid mounds, gateways to the Otherworld, home of the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann, the People of the Goddess Danu, a race of gods who ruled Ireland before the coming of the Celts and afterward retreated into the fairy mounds. Brigid is said to be a descendant of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and author Felicity Hayes-McCoy links her directly with Danu who renewed the earth each year in spring.
Brewing in Ireland is believed to have begun 5000 years ago. And it is associated not only with the Tuatha Dé Danann who brewed an ale that gave the drinker immortality but the legends of Brú Na Bóinne itself – that it once flowed with endless supplies of ale. The first mention of “red ale” is found in an Irish poem dated back to the 8th or 9th century, but the word ale is believed to descend from a very old Indo-European word **olú-t-, which originally meant ‘golden or reddish color’. This is why for my Cailleach-inspired Ale cake I used traditional red ale. No, I didn’t brew it myself, but I suffused it with the solar magic of chamomile!
Chamomile was a frequent brewing herb in both mead and ale. Long before the addition of hops, ancient ales were medicinal and magical brews flavored with a wide variety of herbs like meadowsweet, mint, fennel, heather, yarrow, marshmallow roots, borage, marjoram, sweet gale, bog myrtle. So it’s likely Red Ale’s original color had more to do with herbs than hops. Chamomile is a sun herb often associated with the solar aspects of Brigid, but its element is water (one of its folk names is Water of Youth) which brings in Brigid’s aspects as protector of the holy waters. Accordingly, chamomiles’ magical powers of purification (by fire) and cleansing (by water) are ritually suited to this time of new beginnings.
Brigid was a renowned herbal healer and I find it interesting that Cailleach was also known as Hag of the Herbs. Many Gaelic oral narratives link her gifts of herbal healing, prophecy, and second sight – to the powers long ascribed to consuming ale.
“On the Caileach’s mountain, there is a well of wisdom and magic mead, from which if we only knew the recipe, we could go to that marvelous ale, that once tasted — ‘age could not touch us, nor sickness, nor death’.” T.G.F Paterson, Old Tales from the County of Armagh, 1939)
The Caileach’s Red Ale Cake
This recipe is an excerpt from “Brigid’s Feast of Light: The Magical Foods of Imbolc”, an Ecookbook at Gather Victoria Patreon.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups brown sugar or granulated raw sugar
- ¾ cup cocoa powder sifted
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 cup of ale or beer
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
- 2 large eggs at room temperature
- ¾ cup of dried chamomile
- Preheat the oven to 350F, grease, and dust a large bundt pan with cocoa powder.
- Melt your butter on low heat. Add ¼ cup of dried chamomile, stir, and allow to gently warm for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from heat. Sieve off flowers, give them a good squeeze to release all of the butter, and set the butter aside. (If you don’t have 1/2 cup of butter remaining, just add a little more melted butter to top up)
- Pour your ale into a small saucepan and heat until just simmering. Add ½ cup of dried chamomile and let it warm on the lowest heat for 10-15 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and sieve off the chamomile and set aside.
- Place flour, sugars, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a bowl. Stir to combine. In another bowl whisk buttermilk, eggs, chamomille butter, and vanilla. Temper this mixture with the warm ale, adding a little at a time while whisking the egg mixture quickly. Add wet ingredients to dry and combine well.
- Bake until a toothpick comes out mostly clean, approximately 35-40 mins.
Chocolate Ganache Topping
- 1 cup dark or bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped.
- 1 ¼ cups heavy cream
Place in a large heat-proof bowl. Bring cream to a boil over medium-high heat; pour directly over chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Gently stir chocolate and cream until well combined and smooth.
P.S. To discover more about the Caileach check out the video link below – it will take you to Vimeo where you can watch it full size!