Wet. Gray. Soggy. I’m not describing the bread. We’ll get to that.
I recently spent a week on a road trip in Ireland, beginning with our arrival off the sea-ferry to the southern port town of Rosslare.
When I say ‘town’, let me be clear. I really am not aiming to be disparaging. There just wasn’t much to call this a ‘town’.
There was the sea. And the ferries. And the road. And a string of nondescript B&Bs that line the main road into and out of town.
And there was gray.
Rosslare seemed wrapped in this impenetrable gray that had replaced any semblance of Earth’s vaulting atmosphere with “a feeling of being wrapped in dripping cotton wool through which you would never find your way out again.” (I tried to say it in fewer words and honestly, I couldn’t.) I am as inspired as any over-eager American when they find themselves in a country they have never been to. I want to like it. I want to be enchanted as only Americans can be by every nuance of how life is lived outside of North America, with our endless stretches of new subdivisions and eminently practical, lookalike housing where every third unit is built on the same design. And I did enjoy this trip to Ireland; there are volumes to say about the lifestyle and the people and the villages that are both incredibly modern (the feeling of being much more integrated with Europe than Britain is surrounds you in Ireland) while still hosting vistas and villages that look straight out of some distance past. Rosslare, however, was one of the few places I felt with immediate certainty that I could never live; even spending more than one night would be asking a lot. The wind blew and the gray settled on your shoulders and you had the feeling the sun would never return. In my geekier moments, I would liken it to New Caprica, but you have to be a Giant Nerd to appreciate the reference, and that would be a different sort of article altogether.
What can penetrate a gloom as thorough as this? Bread. Homemade Irish bread, cooking to a golden brown in the oven. I promised we’d get to it, and honestly, it doesn’t disappoint.
Not far from the seaport that gives Rosslare a purpose and livelihood is an unusual and unassuming B&B, Old Orchard Lodge, that serves the car traffic to and from the ferry to Britain; cars tend to make an overnight pit stop in this exposed, remote village before heading off to “all points North, South, and West” from there.
In truth, the only reason we found ourselves staying at Old Orchard House was because the Best Western in town was full–otherwise, we’d likely not have taken the gamble when we looked at the photo online. There was nothing wrong with it. But…it was just so clearly someone’s home. I had two children with me and I’m not a student anymore; I just didn’t fancy staying in what looked like someone’s house in the middle of two days of driving. And yet…as you drive up to it, you find the wind leaves you with little choice, and sort of hurtles you into the house, where you’ll take any open door as a blessed promise of reprieve from the howling, dripping weather. Kay appears from down the hall to let you in with an incredibly warm welcome and a floury apron around her waste, with stories to tell you about the improvement she’s been making to the house that week, and the flurry of guests, and her children and their vacation plans…. It’s completely, immediately…wonderful. Kay runs this B&B herself as both hotel and home, and while it doesn’t evoke the kind of pleasure on arrival of having…arrived (to wherever you’re finally going–this hotel, like the town, is, by nature, forever ‘in-between’)–Kay has infused the setting with something possibly better: the fleeting sense that you are staying in what could almost be a regular home in Ireland, eating real food made for normal life–and isn’t that the best way to get to know any place that isn’t home? My godmother spent most of her adult life traveling the world and she would say that every step up in accommodation was another layer between you and the people who live there–and it was ever the people that she felt were the reason for going. To that end, Kay ushers you into her sitting room, plops you down on the sofa, and presents you with an enormous tray of tea, biscuits, and warm, buttered bread with jam.
It’s the bread that is worth this long, slow, lumbering lead-in because the bread really was the star of this experience. It was essentially Irish Soda bread—-and there are a million recipes for those—-but what made this bread so special is that it wasn’t “Irish Soda Bread” in any formal sense. It wasn’t based on any recipe. For Kay, this was just Bread, and when I asked her how she made it—-because one would do that after tasting how moist, wholesome and delicious it is-— Kay laughed dismissively and said, “Oh, well, I don’t have a recipe! Just a bit of flour, a bit of buttermilk, a bit of wheat germ and yogurt, and then you JUST KEEP TRYING until you get it right!”
Well, I have never been the sort of bold baker (sweets, bread, or otherwise) to leave the chemistry in the endeavor to chance. I have always been taught, and believed, that baking is science and requires precision to get right. Kay, however, has begun to change my mind.
In the middle of her morning chaos—-cooking breakfast for a houseful of guests all at different times, getting the kitchen cleaned, sorting out invoices and grocery lists—-Kay asked if I’d like to watch her make the day’s bread so I could see how she put it together. Even though we had a ferry to catch, I dashed into the kitchen to witness an intentionally chaotic assemblage of ingredients. Intentional, because precision here will just slow you down, and it won’t improve the bread.
This, then, is how she did it:
It starts with a kilo of flour.
What is that in Imperial units? I have no idea, and you shouldn’t care either. Once you learn something in a certain unit, just embrace it and build off it. The fact we’re still on Imperial in the States is really starting to blow my mind.
A kilo of flour. Kay’s trick: she only uses Self-Raising Flour. So you’re ensured of a little extra lift given that this is an unyeasted bread. Drop the flour through a sifter.
Next, drop in some wheat germ. A large tablespoon (a European tablespoon is more like an American soup spoon) of baking soda. A tablespoon of Greek yogurt, maybe two. A good pinch of salt. And enough buttermilk to bring it all together and keep the mixture quite wet.
How much of each of those things? I have no idea. According to Kay at Old Orchard House in Rosslare, “Just keep trying. Until you get it right.”
When you have guests over, whatever the weather outside, and you place a fresh loaf of this in front of them that you just made that day, and you shrug your shoulders when they ask about the recipe because, you know, you just made it from experience with a little of this and a bit of that–you’ll be glad you did.
Bake at 350. How long? Until its done.
Old Orchard House Quick Bread
1 Kilo Self-Rising Flour
1 Cup Wheatgerm
3 T Baking Soda (American measurements)
2 t salt
2 T Greek yogurt
2 cups Buttermilk (more or less depending on what it takes to bring the mixture together and keep it wet)
Mix all by hand. Drop into small bread tins and bake at 350 degrees (F) until golden brown.
** This recipe is estimated from Kay’s demonstration. If you cook it and find it needs adjustment, please update us at firstname.lastname@example.org