Making the Bread: A Narrative
By Susan Mangan
Last St. Patrick’s Day, morning dawned, welcoming perfectly crisp and clear weather. The woodpecker could be heard in my yard. His insistent tattoo enlivened the earth with the promise of new life. Green ramps and early crocus sensed the warmth of the sun and began to lift through the hard soil, unfurling in primitive tendrils. Feathered comrades flew overhead searching for bits of suet and shriveled rosehips from our garden.
The lively tattoo of the woodpecker continued to drum on the trunk of my damson plum tree, breaking through the hardened sap, reminding me to warm my peppermint tea and to pull my baking scones out of the oven.
My scones are rich and soft, more English cream than traditional Irish. I forgive myself, as I am half Italian and grew up with biscotti rather than brown bread. I continue to learn though, studying Irish cookery books and sampling the delicious breads and cakes that my mother-in-law and her friends bake throughout the holidays.
Traditional irish Soda Bread
Everyone has a different twist on traditional Irish soda bread. My childhood girlfriend’s mother who hailed from Castleisland, County Kerry added delicate caraway to her bread, infusing the soft texture with the faint taste of Licorice Allsorts.
Our aunt incorporates golden raisins and currants to her bread with just enough sugar and egg to ensure a light, yet sweet bite of bread. At the risk of stirring up a small mutiny, I have to say that both my mother-in-law’s soda bread and brown cake are my favorite of all.
There is both a firmness to the cake, as well as a delicate constitution. Plump raisins are perfectly portioned, and the crust is satisfyingly crumbly. The ingredient necessary to all these delightful breads, however, is buttermilk, as well as a tale about the recipe proudly told by the legion of loyal fans who enjoy this treat not just on St. Patrick’s Day.
Last year, I thought I had sampled all the breads the fine Irish women across the city of Cleveland baked. Alas, there was one more hiding in the larder; except the larder was actually a tent set up in the parking lot at my son’s rugby game. While the young men prepared to do battle on the field, the parents nurtured their stomachs and calmed their nerves with savory bites and festive drinks. As it was St. Patrick’s Day, a comrade passed around a tray of soda bread.
With greedy fingers I grabbed one, then two, then three slices of the bread, hoping no one noticed my gluttony. It was by far one of the best Irish cakes I have ever eaten. As a diversionary tactic, I teased this father, enquiring if he was up at dawn baking the delicious bread. He went on to tell the provenance of the recipe. I am not sure what was better, the bread or the tale.
Years ago, the bearer of the bread was spending St. Patrick’s Day with family and his beautiful rose of a girlfriend on Achill Island. The girl’s nana would bake the bread every other day.
No Buttermilk for the Bread
St. Patrick’s Day was soon approaching, and the lads were having a celebratory time in the pub. Upon returning to the house, they discovered that a tragedy was about to unfold: there was not an ounce of buttermilk in the house to bake the bread; and so it was that Nana called upon the help of her favorite soon to be grandson-in-law to head out to find some buttermilk.
After searching high and low, over field and bog, the lads found some buttermilk. As with all good stories, truth and fiction tend to blur, but the much-needed ingredient was finally procured at 3 o’clock in the morning. The holiday would soon be saved.
In order to arrive at room temperature, the buttermilk sat on the counter for the rest of the now fleeting night. While her family slept, Nana rose early to mix the bread in her giant silver bowl, the recipe her best-kept secret. On top of each cake, she would mark a cross to bless the bread and offer prayers to those who have gone. As always, the bread rose beautifully. Now, the lads were called upon once again, but to deliver the cakes far and wide to a lucky bunch of hungry folks.
Food brings out the best in us. We share meals and stories, warming our bellies and nurturing our souls. I so enjoy seeking out cookery books on my travels. During my last sojourn to Ireland, I purchased a wonderful book that not only offers recipes, but moreover, provides a narrative, a story of a people and their passion for local food.
Achill Island Sea Salt
Paging through the atmospheric cookbook entitled Recipes and Stories from Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, I poured over the account of Kieran and Marjorie O’Malley who founded Achill Island Sea Salt in 2013. This entrepreneurial couple looked out on the bays of Keel and Dooagh and realized the gifts that nature provides. As Kieran states, “The island provided for us just as it has done for generations; we just had to listen closely to what it was trying to tell us.”
Cookery books spin stories for their readers that engage both imagination and appetite. Such books cross cultures and generations, inspiring new recipes and celebrating the old.
This St. Patrick’s Day, after the festivities have settled and before bedtime beckons, I may just pour a bit of whiskey into my decaf coffee and sweeten it with a bit of brown sugar, topping it all with a cloud of freshly whipped cream. Doesn’t a proper dram of Irish Coffee sound like just the right accompaniment for that last piece of homemade Irish bread?
*Sources consulted: Armstrong, Cathal &David Hagedorn. My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Eddy, Jody. Recipes and Stories from Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Gill Books: Dublin, 2016.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected]