I’ll never forget a trip to Ireland a while back. The images are still vivid in my mind: Bright verdant landscapes, not double but triple rainbows(!), and cows sporting the Kerry flag on their horns. We had rented a tiny car, driving precariously on the “wrong” side of the road, a continuous light drizzle fogging our windshield. We had no itinerary in mind as we meandered our way from Dublin to the Dingle peninsula on the west coast. We must have passed through countless quaint towns with immaculate houses and perfectly manicured yards. It’s no wonder that this country holds a Tidiest Town contest annually!
The excitement of traveling is that each time, one discovers something new, whether a custom, or an outlook, or a food. On this trip, I discovered the Irish Soda Bread. It was a wet, chilly morning – we had gotten up early so we could get a head start on sight-seeing. Our hostess, a motherly figure who spoke with a sonorous Gaelic lilt, lavished us with a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham and potatoes and, of course, her freshly baked soda bread.
I was surprised when I took my first bite. Instead of the flavour of yeast, I was met with a taste foreign to me in traditional bread. We devoured the first loaf, and wished for seconds. Our hostess graciously brought another one, proud that we had fallen in love with one of her country’s beloved staples. For the rest of our stay, we helped ourselves to generous slices, topped with rich local butter, homemade jams, and honeys. That was a gastronomic delight I have never forgotten.
The history of the soda bread actually has its origins in the Americas, when the Native Indians used the ash (known as pot ash or pearl ash) from their fires mixed together with a sour milk to leaven their breads. Commercialized baking soda was introduced to Ireland in the 1800’s, and they adopted this technique from the Americas. For the Irish, most living in poverty at that time, it was much cheaper and easier to use baking soda than yeast in their breads.
The oldest known Soda Bread recipe was published by an Irish paper in County Down, Ireland (as cited in the November 1836 issue of Farmer’s Magazine (London) VOL 5 p.328):
“A correspondent of the Newry Telegraph gives the following receipt for making ” soda bread,” stating that “there is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the bowels.” He says, “put a pound and a half of good wheaten meal into a large bowl, mix with it two teaspoonfuls of finely-powdered salt, then take a large teaspoonful of super-carbonate of soda,% dissolve it in half a teacupful of cold water, and add it to the meal; rub up all intimately together, then pour into the bowl as much very sour buttermilk as will make the whole into soft dough (it should be as soft as could possibly be handled, and the softer the better,) form it into a cake of about an inch thickness, and put it into a flat Dutch oven or frying-pan, with some metallic cover, such as an oven-lid or griddle, apply a moderate heat underneath for twenty minutes, then lay some clear live coals upon the lid, and keep it so for half an hour longer (the under heat being allowed to fall off gradually for the last fifteen minutes,) taking off the cover occasionally to see that it does not burn. ” This, he concludes, when somewhat cooled and moderately buttered, is as wholesome food as ever entered man’s stomach. Wm. Clacker, Esq., of Gosford, has ordered a sample of the bread to be prepared, and a quantity of the meal to be kept for sale at the Markethill Temperance Soup and Coffee Rooms.”
So, as is often true in life, from strife comes human ingenuity, and in this particular case, the Irish Soda Bread.
In reverence to the ancient grains, we present our version of this Gaelic pride, made with Raisins and Emmer wheat. We hope that our kind hostess then would enjoy this American iteration.
Our “Inspired by the Irish” Emmer Soda Bread recipe
Makes one loaf:
1 3/4 cups Emmer wheat (or 3/4 cup wheat + 1 cup plain flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup yoghurt or buttermilk
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup raisins
Preheat oven to 350F
Butter or oil a 1 lb tin loaf pan
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt and raisins together. In a small bowl, combine all the wet ingredients. Pour the wet into the dry ingredients, and mix quickly with a fork until all the flour is just wet. Do not over mix. Pour into the tin pan and bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes. Let cool for at least fifteen minutes before serving.