Brown Irish Soda Bread
I grew up in a small fishing village called Blackrock, on the east coast of Ireland, the fourth of five children. Most summers I spent my vacation in Kilkenny with my aunt, uncle and cousins. This is where I learned to bake, appreciate antiques, and fail miserably at tennis.
My mother’s talents were best applied in business, and it is safe to say that all five of her children had to survive many disasters from her kitchen. However, my Aunt Mary, her sister, could conjure up pies (or tarts, as we called them) and casseroles as well as her award-winning brown bread.
Assisted by all of us and her trusty Aga oven, everything flourished at her fingertips. She grew her own herbs in pots in her tiny concrete back yard and a beautiful clematis thrived on composted hops from Smithwicks Brewery behind her house.
We visited the market each summer Saturday to buy fresh produce. Once, I was honored to be sent to Mr. Martin, the local butcher, to have a piece of round steak minced for a recipe. I was instructed, as I pulled the heavy Georgian door behind me with both hands, “Min, don’t forget to tell Mr. Martin to clean out the mincer first, I want to make sure it is my minced round steak, nothing else.”
As the sun set each evening, another loaf of bread was prepared by my aunt’s hands. Mary didn’t measure anything when she made brown bread. She skillfully dropped her hand in the bag of flour and used four handfuls of white flour and five of brown. She made her own buttermilk and, to my horror, told us stories of how, as children, she and my Mum would eat raw eggs and wash them down with buttermilk.
After she worked her magic, the dough was ready for the trusty Aga, the oven range that also heated their Georgian mansion. After baking, the bread was left to cool on a wire rack wrapped in a damp tea towel to keep the crust soft.
Mary taught me the ideal consistency of dough and pastry for pies and tarts. It has served me well. “You have to hold the dough, Min. You have to understand it,” she’d say. She’d make me tap the bottom of the loaf after it was cooked to listen for that perfect “hollow” sound.
It took me some practice as an adult to get my Irish soda bread right, even with all of the advice and hands-on help from Aunt Mary. I had to experiment with different types of flour and butter, but trial and error eventually led to a delicious staple from Ireland that can be eaten with breakfast, lunch or dinner. I now own a bed-and-breakfast and my favorite use for this recipe is to serve it fresh to my guests as part of a full Irish breakfast. After breakfast we take our Irish breakfast tea to the garden and sit and chat about the plans for their day.