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The Upsetter: Soda Bread
And its real place in Irish History
The emergence of soda bread as the pre-eminent and the best-loved bread ever made in Ireland did not evolve from a charismatic, enduring culinary tradition.
Traditional breads in Ireland, in fact, were oatcakes, barley bannocks and breads leavened with barm beer and soured potato juice.
Soda bread only came to Ireland in the early nineteenth century, when a chemical ingredient – soda ash, first invented by Native Americans – became industrially available. Bicarbonate of soda was first developed in 1783, in a French soda-ash factory and was later replicated economically by companies in the U.K. and U.S.
Baking Powder – in which the alkaline sodium bicarbonate is premixed with the acid, cream of tartare – came later again, and then breadmaking and cakemaking were transformed. (Some bakers don’t even use bicarbonate of soda in “soda bread.” We enjoyed an amazing loaf recently baked by Anne Zagar of 51 Cornmarket Restaurant, Cork, which just used baking powder to leaven the loaf. It was a wow, and so was the burnt onion butter that came alongside.)
The easy-to-make Soda bread thrived because it provided a good resource against widespread hunger in Ireland. It made use of local and by-product ingredients - soft, low-protein flour; buttermilk – and, helpfully, it didn’t need an oven. The bread could be made easily, cheaply and quickly in a rural domestic setting, with just an open fire and a heavy pot.
So far, so unromantic.
Ok. Let’s start this again. Soda Bread - The Myth:
Soda bread represents the heart and soul of the Emerald Isle. Learned at your grandmother’s apron, it was eaten with lusty dishes such as Irish Stew or a warming soup, then washed down by fireside cups of tea. Soda bread is particularly celebrated coming up to the feast day of St Patrick (not true) when the traditional sign of the cross is cut into the bread to let the fairies out (true, but also to assist even cooking).
In fact, soda bread has survived because it’s simple, local and delicious. Instead of the myth of soda bread, we like to think of it as a hybrid, globalised technique that made the best of local ingredients, and staved off hunger, a kind of immigrant food in its own way.
We’ve been musing on soda bread’s place in Irish culture ever since reading Maria Bradford’s newly published Sweet Salone - Recipes from the heart of Sierra Leone. Maria publishes a recipe for soda bread in the section on Afro-fusion Starters.
It seemed happily appropriate to find the recipe in this context: Maria uses African salted cashew nuts and the ancient grain fonio to embellish the otherwise normal brown soda bread, and it’s delicious.
Maria Bradford is one of a growing number of British chefs and food writers, writing cookbooks about their mixed heritage, in a culinary wave that has become known as Third Culture Cooking.
Third Culture Cooking is about foods that derive authenticity not from deep, enduring historical roots, but from circumstances experienced along the way. Hence soda bread having a place in Afro-fusion cooking.
In fact, this is consciously inauthentic cooking, responding to circumstances of need. Leading proponent Ravinder Bhogal describes her cooking in her book and her London restaurant, Jikoni, as “proudly inauthentic”.
Soda bread came out of nowhere in Irish cooking, but created a loaf that fed a people steeped in poverty, using an industrial ingredient mixed with produce that was good, local and easily available, and that was easy to produce.
Maria Bradford writes in the beginning of her beautiful, photographically rich, book that her grandmother traded in Kola nuts, a currency in parts of West Africa for centuries. Kola nuts are “culturally significant, and economically important” and they feature on the inside cover of her book.
The first time we made the bread we used fine bulgur in place of the hard-to-find fonio, and the cashew nuts were so good.
The second time we made it using Brazil Nuts from the revolutionary UK food company Hodmedods. These Brazil nuts – directly imported from the Kayapó farmers who grow them – are also culturally significant and economically important and supporting their culture helps directly with protection of the Amazon rainforest. We need to eat Brazil nuts as if our lives depend on it, because in some ways our lives do depend on it.
Sometimes food heritage comes from circumstances of need as much as culinary traditions, arriving a time when people have to act and change.
With inspiration from Maria Bradford, here is our version of an Afro-fusion, rainforest-protecting, Irish famine-beating, inauthentic Brazil Nut Soda Bread. It’s delicious.
Brazil Nut Soda Bread
olive oil for greasing tin
300g whole wheat coarse ground flour
60g fine bulgur (it has to be fine, not coarse)
100g Brazil Nuts, finely chopped in a food processor
1 teasp bicarbonate of soda
1 teasp baking powder
250ml warm water
Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Grease a 2lb loaf tin with the olive oil. Measure all the dry ingredients into a bowl, and the wet ingredients into a jug.
Pour the liquid mixture into a well in the centre of the bowl of dry ingredients and stir with a spatula until just mixed. The mixture is wet, but the bulgur will soak up a lot of it. Scrape into the greased pan and cook for approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes (checking during the last twenty minutes). The temperature of the bread will shoot over 90ºC when measured with a kitchen thermometer and this means it’s ready. Remove from the tin after a few minutes and allow to rest on a rack for about an hour until cool before cutting.
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