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ESSENTIAL FOOD TRAILS JOURNAL

How do you eat a loaf of bread?

Siobhán Sloane, Essential Food Trails, Ireland

24 April 2020

One bite at a time.

Bread-making is having a moment in the stay at home days of the first half of 2020. The strive to achieve the perfect sourdough starter has become a national past time. It may be surprising to learn, but there was a strong tradition of bread-making in Ireland that long pre-dates Covid-19. Long before the introduction of the potato to Ireland around the 16th century when chips became our main source of carbohydrates, we enjoyed a diet of cereals and dairy, with varying amounts of meat and fish together with some wild foods (you can read my post about wild food here). 

Where is all the flour?
Much of the flour available to us today is imported from the UK and as we wait for shipments to come in there is a scarcity of flour on supermarket shelves. In the past wheat was widely grown in Ireland as our damp climate provided ideal growing conditions. Around the country are the remains of watermills, and the Museum of Country Life in Co. Mayo has some examples of querns, kilns and threshing machines all associated with producing flour. Bread was baked on a griddle or in a bastable over an open fire. There are a few operational mills in Ireland such as Martry Mill in Co. Meath which produces stoneground wholemeal flour. Although presently not grinding flour, the restored Finnertys’ Mills in Co. Galway is well worth a visit.

What to do with all the sourdough experiments?
With the lockdown meaning that many people are spending more time at home; trying to reduce trips to the supermarket and exploring self-sufficiency and new hobbies, we have turned into a nation of bakers. Once you have acquired some flour and attempted to make sourdough, you may find yourself with an excess of sourdough starter. I have to confess, the sourdough efforts in my house are made by my husband Mr. O’Malley. I am witnessing the dizzying highs and death defying lows in his quest to produce the perfect sourdough loaf. He bakes the loaf in a ceramic pot a technique is called a dutch oven and is reminiscent of the bastable pot. It is an ongoing project with varying success. However, finding uses for the excess sourdough has resulted in surprisingly successful results. It has been used to make pancakes, pizza and tempura batter.

Even prior to this time of staying at home and looking inwards, Ireland had been experiencing a food renaissance with a movement toward locally sourced produce. There is an appreciation among chefs, home-cooks and those travelling to and around Ireland for high quality natural ingredients produced on a small-scale. Now is an opportunity to cherish the high quality produce and growing conditions in Ireland and equip ourselves with some new skills in the process. The key word with bread baking and especially sourdough is patience; it takes a long time to become an overnight success. If all else fails, make pancakes.

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