Baking some Humble Loaf

Wholemeal Soda Bread

Nothing fancy or complicated.

Just three ingredients, flour, buttermilk and bread soda to rise, this is a healthy loaf of bread containing many nutrients and fibre.

It was a cornerstone of my diet growing up, baked daily by my mother. Spread with butter and topped off with the bitterness of marmalade, it is still my go to comfort food.

Let me tell you how it brings people together. We are all familiar with the idea of breaking bread together, of the loaves and fishes, the biblical significance of bread. In every culture, some form of flour and water is combined to provide a base of carbohydrate or energy to the diet. It is a basic element of our diet. no matter how sophisticated society becomes, the craving for a fresh loaf of crusty bread never leaves us.

Sourdough is the fashionable bread at the moment. It doesn’t even use yeast as we know it. Sourdough fanatics -and they exist- complain about the use of soda in soda bread such as in the picture above. They are right that the natural yeast that grows when flour is combined with water was used long before chemical reactions were known about. In today’s society, it is actually more complex than using a raising agent because we have grown away from basic skills such as bread making.

The long rising time of sourdough probably breaks down the gluten a bit more and makes it more digestible. The combined fads of sourdough and gluten intolerance feed into one another. It allows the foodies and weight conscious person to eat the traditional delicious looking loaf without feeling guilty, despite the fact that the calorie element is exactly the same as any other bread.

I remember the breadman pulling up outside out back door from Haddens bakery in Cork and handing in delicious white bread loaves and latterly , sliced pan. His next stop was up the road where Donal was ‘a ceoiliac’.There was a special loaf of bread for him and we half envied Donal for having such a rarified thing.

And then I grew up a bit and joined Toastmasters. The second speech in the manual was to persuade people of your point of view. I choose bread. My idea was to teach everyone to make their own bread which was so much cheaper and so much better for them. It was a bit like the ‘let them eat cake’ tone as I had no insight into the realities of trying to effect a change like that. To me it was obvious, Its so easy when you are in your own ivory tower.

Last week, I made the bread in the picture in front of a camera. I had a guest here from Iran with whom I connected for some reason. Sometimes that happens with someone you meet and immediately trust. She and I bonded over tea and Oatmeal biscuits. She showed me the work she was doing with women in Iran on Instagram. How they are growing their businesses online and achieving autonomy. Beautiful women and beautiful pictures of their houses, art and food. ‘You must share your baking’ she insisted. ‘ You have a story to tell that other women will like to hear’.

She was leaving on Friday. We arranged to speak before she left and do a video if we had time. Early that morning, we talked and we checked the light, I put on some makeup and an apron. Then her friend arrived to drive her to the airport. I had to leave too. She went upstairs to do her final packing. Then I followed her upstairs and said – lets do it – ‘ how long will it take? ‘ Five minutes I said.

So we went down to the kitchen and silently she moved around furniture, adjusted lights while I made sure everything was within reach. At this point, the Brazilian couple who were also staying in the house had come to sit at the table for breakfast. They have very little English so we basically ignored them as we went about preparations.

The camera ‘rolled’ and I chatted my heart out. How my mother had lost any recollection of ever making bread in the last few years before she died, and how she remembered while she watched me making it, giving me tips and advice as I went along. A bittersweet memory, linked to one of the fundamental daily tasks I would have shared with her all my life.

To me, reliving and continuing the ritual, the tradition, and the method of bread making as my mother did, is a direct link to our lives together, a symbol of how we best communicated. always in an act of creation, of handiwork and shared vision of an end result.

I opened the oven door to put in the bread and Sorema came round the table to get a close shot. As I closed the door and turned around, a burst of applause broke out. My Brazilian guests had loved every minute and there was excitement and electricity in the air. Language barriers had completely gone and we laughed as they congratulated me.

It was only 9.15 in the morning and this had already happened. I thought how precious moments like this were. When people from different corners of the world could come together in generosity and good feeling over a humble loaf of bread.


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