In Ireland, brown bread is at the heart of any meal.
Photographs by Helen Cathcart
“Mammy wouldn’t be happy with that,” said Delia Behan, head cook at the boutique guesthouse Number 31 in Dublin. “Too dry. Needs more buttermilk.” While the other guests slumbered in the predawn hours, the kitchen filled with the aromas of baking. Without measuring, Behan tossed whole-wheat flour, wheat germ, and a touch of brown sugar into a bowl—some of the dry ingredients for a loaf of brown bread. “I don’t even own a scale,” she said, as she poured a splash of thick buttermilk over the dough, re-creating the recipe she learned from her mother growing up in County Offaly in central Ireland. A mother of three, with blue eyes darting out beneath red bangs (that’s fringe, in Dublin), Behan stirred the mix softly and explained, “You need to be gentle with food.”
After watching Behan slide her loaves into the oven, as she has every morning for 16 years, I took my seat at the farmhouse-style table in the conservatory, which was filled with bright October sunshine. Before long, out came a basket of hot brown bread and a pot of tea.
In Dublin, the traditional Irish breakfast is a strategy for warding off a Guinness-induced headache and an excuse for lingering over the day’s first cup of milky tea. Brown bread is at the heart of the ritual. Fresh from the oven, thickly sliced, slathered in salted Irish butter, brown bread soothes you with its unfussy nourishment. Yeast-free soda bread appeared in Ireland in the mid-19th century, when bicarbonate of soda was first used as a raising agent. The bread could be baked in a lidded cast iron pot, which meant it was possible to cook over a fire rather than in an oven, and every Irish family could make bread at home. There are white varieties of soda bread, but, as I learned during my wanders through Dublin, it is whole-meal brown bread, with its crumbly texture and nutty flavor, that you’ll find at breakfast or alongside a bowl of midday chowder.
“Classic brown, with a little butter, some good quality smoked salmon, a twist of ground black pepper, and a squirt of lemon juice—that’s my ideal bite,” said executive chef Leylie Hayes when I visited her at Avoca, an iconic Irish department store with cafés in Dublin and elsewhere. When Hayes started at Avoca 25 years ago, she would start baking her brown bread at 7 a.m. Now, in the Dublin center branch, the bakers begin around 3 a.m., making 15 types of bread and six varieties of scones.
From Avoca, near Trinity College, I proceeded to the Chop House, a popular gastropub on the south side of Dublin. Chef/ owner Kevin Arundel has adapted his grandmother’s brown bread recipe, modernizing it with such ingredients as Guinness and treacle (molasses). Mixing the dough doesn’t require any special finesse (actually, the less you handle it, the better), but finishing the perfect loaf is an art. It will tell you when it’s done, Arundel explained, if only you listen. Literally listen. “Once the bread is hollow to a tap of your hand [on the bottom crust], it is done,” he said. That sound signals that the interior of the loaf is cooked, but not dried out. When I took my first bite of a slice of his dense, not too dry (nor too wet) bread, draped with the components of a “fish board”—mackerel, crab, and smoked salmon—I sympathized immediately with the Irish all over the globe who left the island and still long for this taste of home.
RECIPE: Irish Brown Bread
(Makes a 1-pound loaf yielding about 8 thick slices)
Recipe by Delia Behan of Number 31 Guesthouse
½ pound (2 cups) organic coarse whole wheat flour
½ pound (2 cups) organic fine whole wheat flour
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp wheat germ
1 pinch of salt
1 tsp bread soda (raising agent)
4 tbsp salted butter
15 fl. ounces buttermilk
1 large organic egg
1-2 tbsp oats to sprinkle on top loaf before baking
1. Let the buttermilk and egg come to room temperature.
2. Grease a 1-pound loaf tin or, alternatively, line it with grease-proof paper, and preheat oven for 15 minutes at 400°F.
3. Combine all the dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon.
4. In a pot, melt the butter, then pour it into a bowl with the room-temperature buttermilk.
5. Working quickly, whisk one egg in a separate bowl, add it to the butter and buttermilk, and whisk together lightly.
6. Add the wet mixture to the bowl of dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon.
7. When all the ingredients are combined well—the consistency should be wet but firm, and you should be able to clean your bowl of all the dough with your wooden spoon—pour the dough into the loaf tin and smooth out the top with a wooden spoon.
8. Sprinkle oats over top.
9. Bake in the middle of the oven at 400°F for 50 minutes.
10. Remove the loaf and cool on a wire rack. (Some bakers drape a damp tea towel over the top to prevent the crust from becoming too thick.)