Soda Bread

31 Mar 2005

Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 9.

The bread-making tradition is one of the richest and more varied aspects of our culinary heritage in Ireland.

Rotary querns were found in many excavated Iron Age sites (800BC-400AD), which would seem to indicate that bread-making was an integral part of daily life in many Irish homes, made with oats, barley, wheat and rye, which were grown since the early mediaeval period (5-11 Centuries).

For centuries, thin oatcakes were made on a bakestone or griddle over an open fire. Later, breads were leavened with sourdough and barm made from beer, sowans (the fermented juice of oat husks) and fermented potato juice. It was only in the first half of the 19th Century that bicarbonate of soda was introduced, enabling cooks to bake the wide range of soda breads for which Ireland is now so justly famous.

Even in the poorest country cabin, fresh soda bread would have been mixed on a wooden baking board and baked on the griddle, or in the pot oven or bastible, over the embers of the turf fire.

The traditional skills of bread-making were passed on from mother to daughter, and were a source of great pride. It was a compliment of the highest order to be described as having ‘a light hand with baking’. Sadly these time-honoured skills are now in danger of being lost in this generation. Many Irish people are now ‘cash rich and time poor’, so they are easily seduced by frozen par-cooked bread, which is now available not only in shops but in every garage forecourt in Ireland. Small, traditional, local bakers are finding it impossible to compete with this mass-produced bread. As in the US, a growing number of artisanal bakers are emerging but not all of those are carrying on the traditional Irish breads.

Traditionally, flour was stored in a wooden meal chest close to the fire. They were robustly built with a sloping lid and perhaps two or three divisions inside to store white flour, wheaten meal and oatmeal, and on occasion some yellow meal (maize meal). Many had a narrow shelf in the back near the top to store bread soda, cornflour and the precious expensive sugar. When times were hard, the woman of the house scrimped to ensure that the supply of meal lasted from one harvest to the next. The ability to produce freshly baked bread in the months of July and August was a source of great pride to a housewife.

Well–to-do households and farmers with several farm labourers to feed would have bought white flour by the sack. Originally farmers who grew their own wheat would have ground it in a quern or taken it to a local stone mill to be ground into flour. White flour was sold in white cotton flour bags. These were a great bonus and had a myriad of uses. Thrifty housewives made them into tablecloths, sheets, pillow cases, nightdresses, tea towels… The Christmas plum pudding, for example, was boiled in one. Artistic housewives hand-painted them, or embroidered the bags and transformed them into tablecloths or fancy cushion covers for use in the parlour.

Traditionally, most farmers would have had their own cows and used buttermilk, left over from churning the butter, not only to quench their thirst, but also in the bread making. We carry on this tradition at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, every year we proudly teach hundreds of students from all over the world how to make our Irish soda breads, using the milk from our two Jersey cows.

White or Brown Soda bread was originally baked in a pot oven or bastible over the open fire. White Soda Bread was sometimes known as ‘cake bread’. At times of the year when the men were working particularly hard in the fields during the threshing or hay-making, the farmer’s wife would make a special effort to reward them with a richer bread than usual for tea, she might throw in a fistful of currants or raisins, some sugar and egg if there was one to spare. The resulting bread, the traditional Irish ‘sweet cake’ had different names in different parts of the country – spotted dog, curnie cake, railway cake and so on. Currant bread was also a treat for Sundays and special occasions. Nowadays herbs, cheese, chocolate, olives, sun dried tomatoes or caramelized onions are sometimes added, so the possibilities are endless for the hitherto humble soda bread.

Treacle bread, Yellow Meal bread (made with a proportion of polenta), Seedy Bread (caraway seeds), Goaty Bread (made with goat milk), were all well-know variations.
I’ve been baking all of my adult life and much of my childhood, yet every time I take a loaf of bread out of the oven I get a thrill.

Like many other children I began my cooking career at my mother’s side while she made the daily soda bread. As soon as she reached for the mixing bowl, I’d don my apron and pester her for a little piece of dough to make a cistín beag. This was a tiny loaf shaped into a round just like my Mammy made. I’d solemnly cut a cross on top with a knife and my little cistín was baked in her big loaf in the range. The result was often a bit tough and rather too crusty from over-enthusiastic handling, nonetheless I was delighted with it. Fortunately all the grown-ups who were invited to taste ‘my bread’ were always careful to be encouraging and lavish in their praise as they sampled and chewed!

Darina Allen, a food and wine writer, is the owner of the Ballymaloe Cookery School.

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