Bread head

The secret of successful soda bread
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The Independent Culture
It is appropriate that the best soda bread I have ever eaten was in Ireland. Staying in a B&B in Kinsale, the breakfast put that of any other hotel I have stayed in to shame.

Miniatures of Black Bush whiskey on the sideboard for dousing your porridge impressed me. Though, in truth, a night on the tiles in Kinsale is a night of oysters and Guinness, and just about the last thing on my mind was a tot of whiskey. I wasn't surprised to learn they didn't get many takers, it was the thought that counted.

More in order was a pile of toast as sop, in this case brown and white soda bread, for which Ken Buggy, who now runs Buggy's Glencairn Inn, is justly famous. He would rise early every day to make a fresh batch, as soda bread demands, so that by the time you emerged from your crisp linen sheets, there would be a basket of cooled bread waiting, just warm enough to reduce the outside of a knob of butter to a slurry before piling it with raspberry jam.

With a thick crust and the moist heavy crumb of a scone inside, soda bread goes by the name of "cake bread" in the south of Ireland. Altogether unlike a yeasted bread, it's a soft touch for those with a weakness for home-baked griddle cakes and the like.

Before I left, I asked for a lesson, and Mr Buggy assembled, in front of my eyes, a loaf that took only minutes. It was dead eas - wholemeal flour and a little white, some salt, baking soda and buttermilk, stirred up together and consigned to the oven.

As soon as I set foot back in my own kitchen, I took out my large cake bowl, the flour, the salt, the soda and buttermilk, and stirred, and was sorely disappointed when it did not turn out anything like Mr Buggy's.

I tried again. Still no joy. And again, until I felt defeated. It seems harder to produce a loaf of soda bread than a loaf of yeasted. Common failures are that it's too crumbly, or else it doesn't rise, or else it does rise, but, when you cut into it, the centre is still soggy.

Then, Sally McKenna of the Bridgestone Irish Food Guides let slip that it had taken her a year to perfect her soda bread. And, on consulting The Ballymaloe Cookbook by Myrtle Allen, I read: "Anything had been to me easier than the elusive national loaf. Every woman I knew who made good bread appeared just to have `the touch' - some swore by kneading, others by never kneading, some put in half white flour, some none, and, of course, nobody ever went by standard measures - neither did I in the end."

So speaks a pro. Could it be this memory of her painful trial and error that has led Allen to develop a foolproof ready-mix in her twilight years?

The making of soda bread is the antithesis of making a yeasted loaf. "It's all about touch," says Sally Mckenna, "and rapidity. It must be lightly amassed at speed, with no kneading." "Two minutes start to finish," adds John Mckenna.

The premise of the bread is the reaction that takes place when alkaline baking soda meets acidic buttermilk and causes the bread to rise. But to leave it at that would be far too straightforward: there is also the flour used - and Irish wheat is very specific.

Donal Creedon, who produces macroom oatmeal, also mills a flour for soda bread. It's stone-ground and extra coarse, the wheat is soft, of the type that thrives in a cold, wet climate without much sun. And it has a better flavour for soda bread than hard wheat.

In the end, there are so many variants in the making of the bread, there is no such thing as an easy answer. I have found, though, that, given that the starting point of the basic materials over here is different, there are a few precautions that can be employed to help the success rate along a bit.

Some people add both cream of tartar and baking soda, and, if there is any question over the acidity of the buttermilk, then this is a good idea. I also find the addition of egg and a little butter make for a better rise. It may not be advanced-level soda bread, but rather as when you start making pasta, you're not interested in competing with the maestro, just producing something that works.

Soda Bread, makes 2 loaves

This is based on Harold Bagust's recipe in Breadmaking at Home (Hale). Small loaves cook more evenly than large ones, so if you start with these you can progress to a single large one in time.

450 g/1 lb strong stoneground wholemeal flour

110 g/4 oz medium oatmeal

110 g/4 oz strong unbleached white flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp cream of tartar

12 tsp of salt

1 tsp caster sugar

50g/2 oz unsalted butter, diced

1 small egg

570 ml/1 pint buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/200C (electric oven)/400F/Gas 6. Place the wholemeal flour and oatmeal in a large bowl and sieve in the white flour, soda and cream of tartar, and add the salt and sugar. Blend dry ingredients thoroughly or it may affect the end result.

Rub the butter into the flour mixture until it is the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Beat the egg with the buttermilk and incorporate into the mixture which will be fairly wet, stir with a wooden spoon until evenly damp.

Bring dough together into a ball with your hands and halve: on a lightly floured surface, smooth the surface of each loaf as far as possible, and drop onto a greased and floured baking tray. Cut a cross into the top of each with a sharp knife.

Bake for 40 minutes until the loaves are nicely golden and crisp on the outside, and the base sounds hollow when tapped with your fingers.

Shipton Mill produce Irish Soda Coarse Brown Bread Flour, available mail order. Tel: 01666 505050