Bodhrans and Brown Bread; the Food that Fueled my Irish Musical Adventure

by Victoria Bloedau

When I was eighteen, I was a folk singer. What had started as an after-school hobby accelerated quickly into a semi-professional business. After landing a few St. Patrick’s Day country club gigs and recording a demo album, we ambitiously applied to perform in a traditional music festival in the heart of Southwestern Ireland. Three months of intense practice, two turbulence-ridden flights, and one awkward rental car ride later, we found ourselves starry-eyed in a village called Cahersiveen for our “international debut.” Until then, I had seen only one facet of Irish culture. Immersed in village life, I became enchanted with all things Irish –  especially the food.

The British Isles are not exactly known for culinary greatness. Americans hear pained tales of boiled meats, soggy toast, and oversteeped tea from “over the pond.” As the stereotype tells, Irish cuisine in particular consists of potatoes cooked every which way paired with limp cabbage and some sort of fatty beef. I did not expect to eat well in Ireland.

Everything I thought I knew about Irish food was about to be proven wrong. I hadn’t even unpacked my luggage before sinking into a cozy seat in the boisterous pub right below my room. The rosy-cheeked waitress brought me a steaming bowl of fish chowder with a big wedge of freshly baked brown soda bread slathered in golden butter. I raised the first spoonful to my lips, and the steam smelled like the sea. It was briny but delicate, lusciously creamy, dotted with earthy vegetables, and absolutely ambrosial when sopped up with the sturdy brown bread. I fell instantly in love and returned almost every day for a bowl of this divine chowder.

In the mornings, I would join the other groggy musicians in the hotel’s dining commons for a heaping breakfast dish called a “full Irish.” The plate was packed with eggs, fried tomatoes, five kinds of cured meat, and sweet baked beans. It was here that I learned the difference between American bacon and Irish bacon; ours comes in thin strips, theirs comes in thick shreds that you can tear up and mix with the other tasty items. I even tried the infamous black pudding; a sausage made of blood-soaked oatmeal. It’s much better than it sounds, I promise. As with every meal, breakfast was always accompanied by a heaping basket of fresh brown soda bread and locally-made butter. A hearty breakfast like this gave us the stamina to sing, play, and celebrate until dinnertime!

As the festival coincided with Bank Holiday weekend – a summertime public holiday in the United Kingdom – street food was blossoming! I made daily visits to a crepe truck piloted by two jolly, bearded men who ran a farm outside the village. They would expertly cook the pancake to my liking (crispy, please) and spread a thick dollop of Nutella while still hot. The Nutella melted into the spongy crepe, and I melted with joy consuming it.

I attempted to bring a bit of this comforting, culinary bliss home with me. Right before hopping on a bus to the Shannon airport, I bought two round loaves of fresh brown bread from the village market. Much to my disappointment, I found both of them covered in a thick layer of grey-green mold when I unpacked a day and a half later. It’s been my mission since then to recreate these loaves. The following recipe is tried and true, transcribed by a great Irish cook, and thoroughly gratifying. As they say in the Emerald Isle, cheers!

 

Brown Bread for Beginners

This recipe was provided by Darina Allen- a published culinary professor often referred to as “the Irish Julia Child.” It’s perfectly suited for young chefs-to-be: simple, requiring no kneading, and rewardingly delicious!

Ingredients: 3 ½ cups whole wheat flour, ⅔ cup white flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon honey or brown sugar, 1 ⅔ cups buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400℉. Generously brush the inside of a loaf pan with oil (a tall-sided cake pan would work as well). Mix the whole wheat and white flours, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, honey, buttermilk, and egg. Use your hands to make a fist-sized well in the flour mixture and pour the buttermilk mixture into it. Gradually stir in the flour mixture using a wooden spoon. You may need to add a bit more buttermilk if the dough is too dry. It should be soft and slightly sloppy. Pour the dough into the oiled pan and bake for 1 hour. The bread should be nicely browned, crusty, and sound hollow when tapped. Cool slightly and serve warm with lots of Kerrygold butter!