Most of Northern Ireland’s traditional dishes have their roots in potatoes and bread. The simple traditional recipes for soda farls, wheaten and potato breads, pancakes and Belfast baps have survived during the onslaught of fusion cuisine and the pan loaf.
Robert Kirk, the owner of Kirk’s Home Bakery, Sandy Row, Belfast told me, ‘The ethnic breads of Northern Ireland are what my customers want, Belfast baps, sodas and wheaten’s fly off my shelves and I am happy to supply them. My breads are the real McCoy! Baked freshly each day with buttermilk, without artificial ingredients, just the way they should be.’
Bread has its roots in the Neolithic era and the first breads were cooked versions of grain-pastes, some of which are still eaten today – the Scottish oatcake, the Mexican tortilla and Indian chapati. These basic flatbreads formed the diets of many early civilisations, the 12th century BC Egyptians ate a flat bread called ‘ta’ and the Sumerians a barley flat cake.
The development of leavened bread is commonly believed to have been developed in ancient Egypt during the 17th century BC, although the wheat capable of producing it was rare. The grain did not become commonplace in Ancient Greece until 4th century BC.
Pliny the Elder wrote about the Gauls and the Iberians using foam skimmed from beer to produce, ‘a lighter kind of bread than other peoples.’ A type of yeast was developed in the ancient world by allowing wine and wheat to ferment. Using a starter was the most common form of leavening and the result was ‘sourdough’, which is enjoying a renaissance in bakeries world-wide.
There has always been a wide variety of breads available. In antiquity, Athenaeus wrote about honey & oil bread, loaves covered in poppy seeds and griddle cakes. Diphilus noted the health benefits of bread made of wheat in comparison to that of barley. For generations, white bread was considered the privy of the rich, while the poor ate brown bread. Now this thinking has been reversed with the discovery that the fibre in brown bread does wonders for the digestion.
It is interesting to note that the sales of Northern Irish wheaten bread (made with wholemeal flour) have risen steadily in Great Britain – because it is seen as a healthy alternative to the plastic white loaf. Celebrity chef Paul Rankins’ breads are sold at some branches of Waitrose and Sainsburys, in England, and if you haven’t tried them, can I encourage you to do so, they are seriously good.
Northern Ireland is relatively unique in Great Britain because many families still regularly bake their own bread – continuing a tradition that has lasted for centuries. Originally bread would have been baked over an open fire either on a griddle, in a clay oven at the side of an open fire or in a ‘bastable oven’, (a cauldron with three legs and a lid, which was suspended on chains over a peat fire).
We bake bread at least once a week, and my favourite is wheaten soda bread – made without yeast, it is the soda that makes it rise. It’s a bread that needs no proofing or kneading, just a delicate hand, a quick mix, turned out onto a floury board, made into rounds, with a cross cut on top, and baked. Literally within 40 minutes you can have freshly made bread on the table. It has a dense, crumb, with a crunchy crust but the texture of the bread is light. The rich flavour makes it perfect as an accompaniment to smoked salmon, or toasted and smothered in butter and jam, and served with a big cup of tea.
Soda bread is indigenous to Ireland and its climate. Created in the 1840s when bicarbonate of soda was introduced to Ireland, the bread was baked on a griddle hung over a peat fire. The climate of Northern Ireland hindered the growth of hard wheat, which created a flour that rose easily without the assistance of yeast. The bread can be made with white or brown flour, with raisins, or as they do in Co Armagh, packed full of apples. Soda bread takes two major forms, the farl and cake. It is more likely in the North to see the farls for sale, whereas in the South the cake is more popular.
Rolled thinly for ease of baking, the bread was traditionally cut into quarters, with a cross cut into the bread before baking. According to superstition this was to rid the bread of demons and let it rise – consequently it became known as lucky bread. It is a quick bread to make because it is not kneaded.
Various forms of this bread are widely available in local bakeries, markets and supermarkets. It is also used as the base in Northern Irish pizza and of course as an essential part of that old time artery hating favourite, ‘the Ulster Fry’. It is delicious taken quickly from the oven and eaten hot, smothered in butter or with a little garlic added.
Since the Sixteenth century the potato has formed the basis of the Northern Irish diet. So it should come as no surprise that the enterprising Northern Irish began to use mashed potato leftovers, to make another form of bread – potato bread.
Commonly referred to in different parts of the country as ‘fadge’, ‘potato cake’ or ‘farls and slims’, it is an unleavened bread in which the potato replaces a major portion of the wheatflour. It too traditionally found its baking arena on a hot griddle over an open fire. Apple potato fritters are an interesting use of the bread – where it is wrapped, like pastry, around an apple filling. Potato bread also forms an essential part of the Ulster Fry, but it is also lovely eaten with hot with butter and jam. Any time our family has left over mashed potatoes, my Dad can be found at the Aga the next day, perfecting his already delicious potato bread recipe – it is the best way to use leftover mash.
Barmbrack (sometimes spelled ‘barnbrack’) is a yeasted raisin bread. The name comes probably from Gaelic, ‘bairin breac’, which means little speckled cake, although perhaps also derived from ‘barm’, an old word for yeast.
The bread is always eaten sliced and thickly spread with butter. Traditionally eaten on the Island of Ireland at Halloween -each member of the family gets a slice. The bread is baked with a piece of rag, a coin and a ring if you were to get the rag then your financial future is doubtful. If you get the coin then you can look forward to a prosperous year. Getting the ring is a sure sign of impending romance or continued happiness.
Bread is a truly universal food. In Northern Ireland it is definitely part of our daily culture. Whether it is bought in one of the wealth of delightful home bakeries – virtually every street has one or two – or made at home, bread is served at every meal in a traditional Northern Ireland house. The great thing about the Northern Irish bread is that is has survived all the food fads intact and unadulterated – of course many talented chefs have adapted it to flow with the times, but in its original form it remains, comfort food at its best.
Nicky Cahill’s website: www.saltandsparkle.com
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