My mum was never a complainer. But as a family matriarch in the large Irish diaspora of Nottingham she really did resent the complete lack of buttermilk in England when we were growing up. The nineteen seventies provided many wondrous things. However, decent bread was not one of them. In the era of tasteless, white, sliced, convenience the monotony was broken only when my mother baked her soda bread for us. And to us, soda bread was not really bread at all, it was a Sunday afternoon treat designed to lure six children to the kitchen with the hungry eyes that only children from large families will recognise when it comes to getting your fair share of food.
This was the bread that was never allowed to cool. And since wholemeal flour did not seem to exist until at least 1981 it was always made with white flour. By a strange process of osmosis it seemed to absorb all the butter in the house as we demolished slice after slice of the still steaming loaf.
But back to the buttermilk. I confess that I did not really know what buttermilk was until I was about 21 years old. Sure, I had an idea because it sounded like a very nice amalgam of two favourite foods – butter and milk – but what had it to do with baking? In the absence of the real thing, Mum used to have her own “soured milk” on the go for a day or so before she baked soda bread. It seemed to involve adding baking soda to milk and leaving it in an old chipped brown and cream china jug on top of the fridge. I remember it did not look or smell pleasant, particularly in warm weather. That this strange, sour milk was the harbinger of wonderful, soda bread only added to the mystery, as Mum swiftly and lightly combined the ingredients in a bowl with floury hands.
Even now in England you can find buttermilk only on the shelves of larger supermarkets, and there is just one variety, which comes in pathetic little pots. So I sort of feel obliged to bake bread with lashings of buttermilk in Ireland. But not in a dutiful way, more as a sort of homage to my departed Mother, Sadie, who inspired me to cook from a very early age and still inspires me today with that ability she had to rustle up a feast for unexpected visitors without batting an eyelid, always to her own recipe and using whatever she happened to have in.
There is precious little to be had from my garden in the sparse months of February and March, bar Rhubarb (which is next week’s blog), so instead I will concentrate on producing the essential fuel for all Irish gardeners. Brown bread, wheaten bread, health bread, Mammy’s brown cake, call it what you will.
I am starting with my own “just throw it together” brown bread. I know the measurements are supposed to be precise with baking, but don’t be too precious about it because this really will cope with a bit of “adjusting”. Start by placing all the wet ingredients in a large mixing bowl – 500ml of buttermilk (in which I dissolve a heaped tablespoon of dark brown sugar) and a tablespoon of olive oil. I use Macroom Extra Coarse Wholemeal for my flour and the dry ingredients are 400g flour, 100g of pinhead oats, (if you can’t get them blitz some porridge oats instead) 50g mixed seeds and a few more for luck, one teaspoon of baking soda and half a teaspoon salt. Then add the dry ingredients to the bowl. Mix well and remember we are not dealing with dough, more of a stiff cake mix. You will have pre-heated your oven to 170 degrees. Take a loaf tin with one of those greaseproof paper inserts things. Scrape the mix into this and bake for fifty minutes, after which you can reduce the heat to 160 for about twenty minutes. If the loaf is baked through it will sound hollow when you tap it on the bottom. Just stick it back in for five if it’s not quite there. It will come out looking lumpy and bumpy, but the way I see it that all adds to the charm.
While it’s baking I will do an urgent job on the roses in the garden – another homage to my mother. Climbing red roses, rambling white roses, hedgerow roses and pink rose bushes adorn my garden, or will if I can sort out the Black Spot, which just loves the mild, damp climate of West Cork. So, I am being brutal. Cutting away every hint of the dreaded fungus and checking for blighted leaves around the base of the plant. I will burn the diseased leaves and twigs to eradicate all trace. Believe me this will be worth all the bother in summer and will help avoid any temptation to use a fungicide.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, unlike my seven year old self I recommend that this bread is better left to cool down completely before eating. It’s a good “keeper” and will last me and my husband about five days if we are feeling restrained. It is such great bread for breakfast with home-made jam or honey and it’s of course a soup accompaniment extraordinaire. But it’s as the base for an open sandwich or Irish Smørrebrød that it comes into its own. I cut thin slices and spread thickly with butter first and then top with either rich liver pate and dill flavoured gherkins or Union Hall smoked salmon, with crème fraiche mixed with grated fresh horseradish from my garden. And a really great topping from the team at Scandi Kitchen is a base of smashed peas loosened with some lemon juice and olive oil with wafer thin slices of fennel and apple topping some lovely Union Hall smoked mackerel. I know it sounds a bit odd but it really works those smokey, salty, sweet, sharp flavours. We serve these with a cold Icelandic White Ale from Einstok or a nice glass of Baltimore’s West Cork Brewing Company stout. And although it is in some ways a world away from Sadie’s soda bread in her exile in Nottingham, the smell of the baking, the wonderful crust and crumb, the extravagant use of butter all takes me back to the delights of a simple home-made loaf now with the unmistakable tang of real Irish buttermilk that my Mum missed so much.