I didn’t make the bread you see above. I just fell in love with it. On our very first morning in Ireland last June.
We were staying at Kenmur House, a very pleasant bed & breakfast in Kilkenny, County Kilkenny, halfway between Dublin where we had landed and the West coast where we were headed. The b&b owners, John and Peggy Kennedy, couldn’t have been more welcoming. They had offered us tea and cookies when we arrived before giving us a map of their city and pointing out the best walking itineraries and places to eat.
The following morning as one of us needed to get a prescription for a medication lost in transit between London and Dublin, they called their doctor and set up an appointment at the local clinic. We were very grateful as we would never have been able to manage it on our own.
Please skip down a few paragraphs if you are in a rush as I want to share what happened next. It is too memorable to just keep to ourselves.
We had checked in at the desk and were sitting in the waiting room (packed full with all people of all ages) when a forty-something guy walked in with a small-ish and squat-ish man who looked about ten to fifteen years older. Brothers, I thought. The older guy couldn’t articulate or speak in a normal tone. His hands were misshapen, claw-like. He had a dozen sores on his face as well as on his hairless skull. And he looked worried.
He sat down in the chair next to me and despite his nervousness (or maybe because of it) he extended his hand to me. We shook. Then he leaned down and stared at my feet, mumbling something that sounded like “Your shoes are lovely.” Since I was wearing old walking shoes very much the worse for wear, I laughed and said: ‘Thank you!”. He beamed.
Next he showed me the nail of his left little finger. It was way overgrown, thick and brownish. It looked very bad. He groaned loudly.
I said: “What happened?” His companion explained something but his brogue was so thick that I didn’t understand much except that it wasn’t an accident but a birth defect.
The older guy started talking again. Unaccountably, for all his groaning and uncontrollable yelling and mumbling, I understood him better than his brother: he was saying he was afraid the doctor would hurt him. Groaning again he took hold of my left hand and squeezed it. His hand was dry and warm. It felt wonderful in mine. He left it there. As if it belonged. And the strange thing is, it did, you know.
I asked the younger man if the intervention would indeed hurt. He said in a low voice that there were blood vessels inside the nail itself. I didn’t understand the rest. In his normal voice, he told the older guy that once they were done at the clinic, they would go get sandwiches. The patient perked up, let go of my hand and said: “Take home?” The younger man nodded affirmatively. The older man smiled and relaxed.
Then he remembered what would come before the sandwiches and groaning again, put his head on the other’s shoulder. The younger guy comforted him. They were called in before us.
When he heard his name, the older guy jumped up and walked briskly towards the doctor’s office (so much for being scared). A few minutes later we saw them emerge. The older guy looked fine. He didn’t glance in our direction. His only concern was clearly to get out as fast as he possibly could.
In these days of upheaval and division across our nation and beyond, I find comfort in the memory of these two men and of the bond between them, and in the older guy’s obvious belief that the world is filled with loving strangers. What a cheerful thought to hold on to.
Back to the bread!
I asked Peggy what it was. She said: “Brown Irish soda bread.” I had heard of Irish soda bread of course. I had even made soda bread myself a few times, sometimes all white, sometimes with raisins, sometimes with whole-wheat flour. I can’t say I was ever too keen on it and I had certainly never experienced such bliss. Peggy didn’t offer to share the recipe. And I didn’t ask. It was our first day in Ireland and I wasn’t too sure what the etiquette was.
But as the days passed and we experienced more brown soda breads at different bed & breakfasts, believe me, I started to feel very sorry I hadn’t. We had a version of that bread almost every day and most of the time it was either bland or barely edible. I remember one time it smelled and tasted so horribly fishy that you had to wonder what the baker had put in it. My guess is that it was some sort of cheap oil. Although who knows…
We were freezing, having just come back from a visit to Fungie the Dolphin in weather that can best be described as bracing. We ordered the fish chowder, which was nothing short of amazing and it came with that terrific bread (most chowders seem to be served with brown bread in Ireland). By then I was fairly sure I might be able to make it back at home because on our way to Dingle, at one of these tourist shops where they sell green t-shirts, stuffed leprechauns and enough shamrock jewelry to adorn half the planet, I had found a great little paperback, Irish Bread Baking for Today, by Valerie O’Connor. And after verifying that it did indeed contain a tempting looking recipe for brown bread, I had bought it.
We flew back from Ireland on Sunday, July 3. I made that bread on July 4. That’s how impatient I was to see if the recipe would deliver. And deliver it did, dear readers! The bread is exactly like Peggy’s, so much so I wouldn’t be surprised if she had gotten the recipe from the very same book.
There is more though. During our ten days in Ireland we never slept more than two nights at the same place. The typical b&b doesn’t offer laundry facilities. Which is how we found ourselves one day washing our clothes at a gas station/mini-market. The washers and dryers were outside under some kind of awning. It was all rather rustic but it did the trick. While our clothes were otherwise occupied, we needed to keep ourselves busy though. One of us read the local paper, the other was deep in her perusal of the Great Books (half-a-dozen down, hundreds more to go), and I went to see what the mini-market had to sell. That’s how I discovered the flour.
There were bags and bags of wholemeal flour on the shelf and when I came closer I noticed the grind. The flour was labeled “coarse!.” Bingo, that explained the structure of the crumb. The last element of the puzzle had snapped into place.
Back home, of course, there is no coarse wholemeal flour to be found in grocery stores (at least not where I live) but I have been milling my own flour since 2009 and I can mill to grade any day of the week. More on home milling in my next post.
Meanwhile if you are not set up to mill or can’t go to a friend’s house to mill your grain, you can probably use regular whole-wheat flour. The texture will certainly be different but it might still be good. I have made the bread with sprouted wheat flour and it was fine (although the crumb was certainly not quite so addictive).
I emailed The O’Brien Press in Dublin to get their permission to use the recipe in Farine. They very kindly gave it. What I am posting is an adaptation though: I use a bit more salt than the author, also as I usually have no wheat germ lying around, I replace it by sprouted wheat flour. O’Connor explains in her introduction to the recipe that she first tasted it at “the wonderful Tígh Nan Phádai café on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands.” The owner -who had twelve kids- baked three loaves of it every morning, “along with another tow cakes of white soda bread.”
We didn’t make it to the Aran islands although we did see them from a distance one day, lost in the mist. But I imagine they look a bit like what we did see…
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Pre-heat oven to 375°F (190°C)
Prepare two 1-lb pans by spraying the inside with oil
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour(s) (+ wheatgerm if using) with the salt and baking soda, pour in the buttermilk and oil and mix with a spoon to a sloppy consistency.
2. Spoon the mixture in your prepared pans and bake in the oven for 55-60 minutes.
3. Leave the loaves to cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes.
4. Allow to cool on a wire rack.
I have made the bread with different grains and varieties of wheat. More on that in the Home milling post. Meanwhile you are all set for your trial bakes ahead of St. Patrick’s Day!