With the rise in food prices and impending greater shortage of grain people might just start making their own bread again. The farmers have already been asked to grow more cereal this year. We had the sour dough rising in the pandemic, no reason to stop now when you are on a roll. We have our national soda brown bread of course but it has serious competition these days. The amount of breads available to buy now is enormous.
There was a time when wheaten or soda bread was all we had. It was baked at home and even made from pre soaked oats when wheat was scarce, cooked on a flat stone or in the hanging pot or bastible over the open fires before ovens arrived. Then the first cooking ranges and then Aga’s came in and they could make bread in tins so it was easier then to cut into slices. It was only in the 19th century that the chemists created the soda for making bread inflate, up until then it was mostly a flat bread really. They knew the foamy skimmings called barm left over from making beer was a rising agent hence the name barm brack. Yeast had occurred naturally for millennia with bits of tree bark thrown into liquids for fermenting the sugars into alcohol. That’s how Mead or honey wine was first made.
There were six hundred mills in Ireland back in the day and now probably only half a dozen still doing it the old way. There is one near me called Martry Mill which is worth a visit and their wholegrain flour is the best in Ireland. There is another larger mill site for sale in my town which is just a shell now but where hundreds would have worked for their daily bread a century ago. If those walls could talk.
I first made soda bread at nine with my late mother and I still use her and her own mother’s recipe whenever I make any. Every Irish family had their own method and recipe which probably did not vary much except for the odd egg thrown into it to be used up or the brown to white flour ratio differing a little. Most farms made their own butter so the butter milk left over from churning the cream to separate the fat would be used in the bread.
Buttermilk was also consumed as a nutritious drink or given to neighbours for their bread making if they did not make their own butter. These days you will find just about anything and everything in soda bread from Guinness to seeds, nuts and fruits but I prefer it as it was meant to be, just the plain and original. I do like the white soda bread version too where no brown flour is used at all.
If ever there was an aroma for Ireland it is the waft of the freshly baked brown bread just out of the oven permeating the entire house and even out the door onto the road or street. Well that and the smokey smell of the peat turf fire but the days of this Irish tradition might be numbered in the climate crisis battle. Of course you can just buy a commercial industrially produced loaf of brown bread for a couple of Euros in the supermarket.
Nothing comes close however to baking your own. I think every Irish child should get to make it once in their lifetime. You can even buy the dry mix ready measured and you just add the liquid. It’s the act you see, the mixing and kneading and the touch of the dough on the hands. Then the cooking bit and finally the eating.
This is our entire Irish heritage in one single activity. With some real butter and home made jam you have a true taste of Ireland. It’s also very good for you, we need our fibre and eating brown bread will make sure your system functions properly and your gut will love it, so go on, go on, go on and create some history in your baking.