Last week I drove Mary Coughlaín to the Medical Centre in Killybegs. This morning her granddaughter Kate knocked on my door. “Gran sent this for you.” She carried a bundle wrapped in a piece of thick white cloth, knotted on top. She held it gingerly by the knot, at the end of an outstretched arm. “Best not to touch it. It’s still hot. It only came out of the oven.” She stepped into my front room and deposited her burden on the table. “Gran says please, I’m to bring the napkin back, Mr Brennan.” She stood patiently waiting for me to unwrap the bundle and return the cloth.
I didn’t need to look inside to know what the bundle contained. The distinctive smell of freshly baked brown bread filled my house. I removed the still-steaming loaf carefully and set it on a mesh screen to cool. It was one of what I think of as the new-style of soda breads. I could see the raisins in it and smell the caraway seeds. It was far less dense than the version common in my childhood and would, I knew, have been made with a mixture of white and wholemeal flours.
My aunt made brown bread at least once a week. She used only wholemeal flour, buttermilk, salt, and baking soda. The loaf was cooked in the fireplace in an ancient cast-iron pot. The pot had three short legs and a heavy domed lid. It resembled a modern cast-iron casserole pot raised on stubby legs. Ours was blackened and shiny from years of use. It was called a bácús and was used for cooking not only bread but stews and soups as well. I have heard it called a ‘pot-oven’ in English, a name that captures its use and function.
Only after the pot was thoroughly heated in the fire would Aunt Alyce begin mixing the dough for the bread. The flour was measured in a small blue china bowl—two bowls worth for each batch would be placed in a larger wooden bowl. She measured the soda in the palm of her hand, the salt between her fingers. When the pot was ready, she would make a well in the centre of the flour mixture, pour in a scant bowlful of buttermilk and then stir it together. When it was mixed, she would tip it into the heated pot, quickly cut a cross in the top of the loaf and put the lid back on. The pot would be placed away from the hottest part of the fire and then covered with barely smouldering turves. It took about an hour to cook.
We ate it shortly after it came out of the oven, allowing it to cool for no more than half an hour. On the evenings we had bread, our tea would consist of thick, still warm slices with generous layers of butter and marmalade or jam. It was often our evening meal on fast days. The loaf was not large, perhaps six inches across, and we usually finished it the evening it was made. That bread did not keep well. By the next morning any leftover bit would have been rock hard and a danger to one’s teeth. Even when a loaf was fresh, the crust often had to be soaked in tea to soften it before it could be eaten.
In my memory at least, the wholemeal flour made a rich nutty-tasting loaf, nothing like the modern, blander version of soda bread. I considered it a treat, a change from potatoes. Inevitably, there were be a slice left after my mother and aunt had finished their tea. My aunt would turn to me and ask, “Well, Patrick Ross, will you be the martyr and finish this last bit? It won’t keep.” I always consented graciously to play the victim and prevent the waste of food. It would have been unthinkable to throw food out.
Except for the buttermilk, all the ingredients had to be bought at Feelihy’s store. There had been a time when the inhabitants of Munfrees had burned seaweed to produce salt, but those days were but tales heard by the oldest inhabitants from their grandparents. The expense made bread somewhat of a luxury in Munfrees. Everyone made it, but it was not eaten daily.
The only other form of ‘bread’ we ate were oat cakes. They were made with ground oatmeal, salt, water, and a little bit of butter. They were cooked on a cast-iron stand. Like the bácús, it had short legs. There was a shelf to hold the oat cakes as they cooked. The stand had a high back of open ironwork. The stand was set near the fire but not in it. The cakes were not so much baked as slowly dried. They kept well. We often ate them for breakfast, after toasting them over the fire. The one problem with them was that they crumbled easily. Sometimes even the spreading of butter on one caused the cake to disintegrate into a plateful of bits and pieces that had to be eaten with a spoon.
In the 1960s, as Munfrees became more accessible, bread-making almost died out as both yeast and soda breads became common in the stores. For the first time, most inhabitants of Munfrees ate bread every day. The resurgence of baking in the village resulted from our new status as a tourist destination. Our visitors expect to eat traditional Irish food, including ‘Irish’ soda bread.
Amy Graham, the co-owner and manager along with her husband Thomas of the new Munfrees Hotel, was the first person to encourage the village women to bake soda bread. Neither of the Grahams has a talent for cooking, but they felt they have to serve their guests ‘authentic’ Irish food. Amy found a recipe for ‘Irish soda bread’. Unfortunately she likes to cut corners, and her recipe consists of flour, water, and soda—so much soda that the bread tastes metallic and acrid. Most people who tried it fed the results to their pig.
However, the idea of making and selling bread to our visitors inspired several women to search out better recipes. Most of them now make the form of brown bread studded with raisins or currants and seasoned with caraway seeds or other spices. The loaf is much softer and keeps better than the soda bread of my youth. It is also much sweeter and richer, more like a sweet snack than a bread to nourish and sustain. During the summer months, our local express mart has a display of ‘home-baked Irish soda bread, made in Munfrees, fresh daily’. I am told that it is a profitable sideline business for many.
Oddly enough, this ‘traditional Irish food’ is not that old. Baking soda became available in Ireland only in the mid-nineteenth century. As a form of leavening, it was more suited to the type of flours found in Ireland than was yeast and for most people quickly supplanted the leavenings in use previously. And the loaves required less heat to bake than did yeast bread, an important consideration in a country where fuel for cooking fires, especially among the peasantry, could be scarce. The raisins and the spices came much later.
We never referred to these loaves as anything but arán, ‘bread’. Certainly we never called them ‘Irish’; to make that distinction, we would needed to think that other forms of bread took precedence over the type familiar to us. And we never called them ‘soda breads’. They were simply ‘bread’. Now we might refer to them as ‘brown bread’, but ‘Irish soda bread’ is a name for tourists.
I still have Aunt Alyce’s bácús and blue bowl. I tried once to make bread in the bácús using what I remember as her recipe and technique. The effort was disastrous and never repeated. I have never mastered the art of cooking in our kitchen hearth. I either burn the food or end up with a raw, undercooked mess. I have used the bácús to make bread in the oven. The results were better—the bread was edible—but it didn’t have the taste I remembered. It was bland and uncomforting.
So many of my memories of my childhood in Munfrees revolve around food and eating. With the exception of fish, which could be had in great abundance, and clams and mussels, our diet was starchy. Potatoes, oats, hearth breads. We had few fresh vegetables, chiefly cabbage and kale. The food was monotonous—it couldn’t have been anything else given the lack of variety in provisions—but it was hearty and comforting. No one starved in Munfrees.
I have witnessed children of friends helping themselves to food from the refrigerator and pantry. I don’t ever remember doing that. We ate only at meals, not between. We never snacked, most likely because there was never food to snack on. As a child, food was doled out to me. I never helped myself at table. My aunt did most of the cooking and serving, my mother only rarely cooked and seldom put food on the plates. We ate what was served, and there were never leftovers. Nothing was wasted. Potato peelings, the outer leaves of cabbages, fish bones—anything that we didn’t eat went to the pigs or the chickens.
Breakfast and tea in the evening—those were our two daily meals. The three of us ate at the round wooden table, sitting on heavy rough wooden chairs, in our front room, the combination cooking, dining and sitting room. The gas lamp in the middle of the table was lit when it was dark outside. It provided a harsh, bright light within a radius of a few feet. The room was dark outside that circle. Still it was better than the wavering light of candles.
We spent much of our time at that table—eating, talking, reading, working. Now, of course, we have electricity in Munfrees. I read in a chair designed for comfort with a strong reading lamp beside it. I seldom have visitors and spend most of my day working in solitude, sitting before my computer in the other ground-floor room and writing. The only conversations that take place in this cottage take place silently in my mind or on my computer screen. I still eat at the same table, even though what I eat differs considerably from what we ate. On cold nights, however, when the wind is hurling salty ocean foam against the front side of my house, I still find comfort in the old foods. Potato soup, colcannon, a baked potato pulled from the hearth, thick slices of homemade bread, perhaps a few rashers of bacon. Tonight I will have some of Mary Coughlaín’s brown bread.