• Idle Chit Chat

Soda Bread: A tale of taste from the Emerald Isle

The air was terrifically cold and the view from the platform at Monkstown looked out across Dublin bay. The tide was out. The waves had left behind sweeping statements of water, long expressive brushstrokes of periwinkle blue illuminated by the last light of the sun. The sky surrendered to the night, accepting its daily fate, and the low straining sun exited the stage with a beautiful final flourish of faded pastels. Watching the last oozings I contemplated the summer left behind and then, I took a picture on my phone.

It was our first visit to Dublin as a family. I was 21 and my nascent love for food was beginning to manifest into an obsession, but one with little direction. A good chunk of the family lived out here and Tilly, my sister, was especially excited to ignite her familial past. She had been practicing her pronouncement of the word “grand”, reading Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, and — much to my Dads annoyance — memorising the names of the Irish rugby team. Our relatives, loud, loving and welcoming, lived in the district of Blackrock, which was traditionally a small fishing village. This spectre of a slower past is still present there, with old merchants’ houses and churches dotted along the streets, and I enjoyed the detached atmosphere as a necessary break from the relentless noise and clamour of London. The rocky coastline outlined by the railway tracks are decorated by Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian houses which watch over the seas and the throng of people going about their daily lives. We were welcomed to the city with warm and open arms, cold, crisp, blue autumnal days and most importantly, delicious food.

The first sip of Guinness, the ‘wine of Ireland’ as James Joyce described it, was a submission to smoothness. Your mouth is soaked with the rich black milk, which then seems to transform into a perfect mix of roasted coffee and freshly baked bread. My Mum, whose Irish roots had brought us to Dublin, predicted our enjoyment and gleefully remarked “everything tastes better in Ireland,” whilst Dad, his Anglophilia slowly thawing, scoffed quietly.

Our mornings were busy: visiting galleries, marvelling at Trinity, and walking up Killiney hill. Afternoons were then filled with much-required visits to Finnegan’s pub in Dalkey, to console tired legs with soda bread and smoked salmon. In the evenings we were treated to long, marauding dinners, involving soothing and comforting stews and an indisputable triumph of an apple pie. However, nothing came close to the first monumentally moreish mouthful of Irish Soda Bread.

Our great auntie’s house was Georgian: a long and spacious hallway leading to rooms made for big family gatherings. Paintings of Dublin and of the surrounding countryside decorated the walls, and the house confronted you with the warming quality of a well-lived home. Auntie Niamh, the dweller of the house, alongside her husband John, is small, energetic, and the owner of the most convivial smile I have ever come across. Auntie Niamh’s character was immediately disarming. She pootled around the house, fixing little figures and pictures in their place, and chatting to their anthropomorphised family dog, a portly female Scottish terrier called Zeus. She appeared to be perpetually putting the kettle on and tea pots were dotted throughout the house, steaming the windows and filling the air with its sweet, bruising fragrance. Most importantly, she is devoted to and loved by her busy family; the grandchildren play noisily in the hallway and clamber up onto John’s lap while he watches the rugby, the adults sit, discuss and laugh. All of this is accompanied by some lovingly prepared food.

On the first morning of our visit I woke up early, well before the rest of the house had stirred. The small window, buried into the wall, let in the emergent autumnal blue. The light dappled through the leaves of a nearby tree’s airy cages and my eyes stuttered towards the attention of the day. My immediate thought, just like my mornings at school, was of food. However, gone were the days of the New York bagels, and by the sounds of the sleeping house I would have to scavenge the cupboards for my morning meal. Throwing on a jumper and some jeans I made my way down the stairs to the kitchen. My nose was woken up first, I picked up the scent of a potential bite; the unmistakable smell of fresh bread, the perfect prey.

The doorway was perfectly sized for Auntie Niamh, but not so for me, I almost had to fold myself in half to enter the kitchen. Inside, the room brimmed with pots, pans and decorated crockery, all different and bursting with colour and life. These objects were all stacked and packed into wooden cabinets which threatened to expel their contents, but thankfully never did. In the middle of the room was a wooden table, receiving the majority of the light which the glass doorway leading out to the garden let in. Sat on that table was a solitary loaf — globular, dark brown, dusted with flour and slashed with a cross on its top. It, as you can probably guess, was a loaf of soda bread and it sat right in the middle of the table. There was a butter dish placed invitingly beside it. The whole thing looked slightly like an 18th Century still life.

Soda bread is the antithesis of the light, lithe, and limber bread of France. It is, in comparison, dense, stocky, and tangy — a mature bread, thick-thighed, and ready to scrum. Quickly, it became the bread of the home baker; it was nutritious, cheap, and could be baked perfectly in a cast iron pan (the home baker’s best friend). Some argue that the bread was popularised out of necessity during the Irish Potato Famine: in a national crisis of hunger, soda bread became an essential source of nutrition. Rising out of Ireland’s land and blooming in the homes of the poor, its recipe wasn’t formalised by bakeries, but instead forged out of the home cook’s requirements. The result is a bread that is both democratic and culturally important in Ireland.

Of course, absolutely none of this was on my mind when I began slicing the loaf of soda bread which sat on the table in Auntie Niamh’s house. The bread had a russet brown crust, a tight crumb which looked at once moist and crumbly in texture. I cut an indelicately hefty slice, generously spread the butter — Kerrygold of course — and with the bread just warm enough to melt it, I prepared myself for a monumental bite. Five slices later and nearly half the bread gone, I had fallen in love with a loaf and vowed that I would learn how to make it.

On the flight back from Dublin I couldn’t stop thinking about this bread: would I be able to find a recipe that matched it? Would I be able to bake at all? We had eaten the bread with practically every meal and it had filled the stomach and the soul. However, most encouragingly Auntie Niamh ensured me that it was a loaf that anyone could make; a statement which I repeatedly rendered ridiculous in succeeding (or failing) weeks.

My first attempts at soda bread were unforgiving disasters. Confused by the moistness of the dough, I consistently added copious amounts of flour. The resulting loaves were like brittle and dry cardboard, eventually metamorphosing into an inedible brick. I would knead the dough furiously, in an attempt to seem professional, but in fact that process would only make the resulting bread tougher. Slices would fall apart in your hand before reaching your mouth, and on the rare occasion they successfully made the journey from hand to mouth, they were tasteless. The bread was a hard sell to even the hungriest of housemates and despite Phoebe’s expert attempts at enthusiasm (“it doesn’t taste that bad”, “I quite like the dryness”, “it works quite well as a doorstop”), my despair wasn’t softened.

The bread which was sat in that kitchen in Dublin seemed a distant dream, a dream which would never become reality, a loaf too far. To make matters worse this was supposedly the easiest bread in the world, a beginner’s loaf which anyone could make. I considered throwing the kitchen towel in, hiding the flour at the back of the cupboard and leaving the buttermilk to the professionals, but I thought I might as well use the remaining ingredients. Utterly defeated I slowly added the ingredients to the mixing bowl: the wholegrain flour, the white flour, the wheat bran and pinhead oats and the last pouring of the buttermilk. I was resigned to failure. This lifeless pile would never recreate that loaf. I half-heartedly mixed it together into a round, not bothering to knead, and dropped the moist mixture into a cast iron pot. I slid the pot into the oven and left the kitchen, without hope or expectation.

It was a strange moment when a sweet and encouraging odour beckoned me back into the kitchen. I thought perhaps Ben had baked a cake, or someone had bought a loaf from a bakery, but the house was empty, it was just me and the soda bread. I approached the oven suspiciously, it had played tricks with me before, but the scent didn’t lie and using tea towels as oven-gloves I pulled the pot out. Inside was a deep brown, well risen steaming loaf of bread. It smelt wonderful, the same smell which had led me down the stairs and into the kitchen at Auntie Niamh’s house, and it looked, much to my disbelieving eyes, triumphant. I dropped the bread onto a chopping board, waited thirty anxious minutes, and without hesitation started slicing. The texture was moist, but compact and the crust was crispy, I hastily spread the butter and took a large bite.

It is easy to exaggerate taste when writing about it: the nostalgic mist which blurs the recollections of the senses means the reality of an event can become distorted and romanticised, but eating that slice of bread was euphoric. It transported me immediately back to the kitchen, back to the warming cold air of Dublin and back to the moment of inspiration. I had made a delicious loaf and it was a victory.

Brown Soda Bread

Soda bread might just be the easiest leavened loaf of bread to make in the world. There is no kneading, no proving and for sheer deliciousness of outcome versus time and effort put in, I do not believe it can be matched. In fact, the less work you put in usually makes for a better loaf. The foundations, like most good bread, are simple: wholemeal flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The buttermilk in the dough contains lactic acid, which then reacts with the baking soda to form tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide which enables it to rise. This idea of using soda to leaven bread was originally used by the indigenous populations of America, but soon soda bread found itself a comfy home in the lush fields of Ireland.

My mum’s recipe for soda bread needed first finding and then dusting off. When we got from that back from Ireland we ransacked the house, determined to find the instructions which we hoped would transport us back to Dublin and to the taste of that Irish bread. It was tucked away under piles of filled notebooks, family photographs, school reports, recipes torn out of newspapers, and love letters saved, but never to be read again. The recipe was scribbled down on a worn page, it had a strangely antiquarian quality to it, which is funny because it was probably from the 1990s; I suppose it was pre-smart phone and pre-search engine and filled with recipes which had been collected, collated and treasured.

Ingredients: 250g Wholegrain flour, 125g spelt or white flour, 60g wheat bran, 70g pinhead oatmeal, 2 tbsp of honey, 600ml buttermilk.

Turn the oven to 200c and place your cast iron pan in the oven.

Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

Mix the honey and buttermilk.

Combine to a moist consistency and form a round dough. Cut a deep cross into the dough. Place the dough onto a baking sheet and lower into the hot cast iron stove.

Bake at 200c for 30 minutes with the cast iron lid on and 30 minutes without.

- Elliot Prior