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History of Irish Soda Bread

Irish soda bread is commonly considered to be a traditional Irish dish. Contrary to popular belief, this type of soda bread is not native to Ireland. Rather, soda bread was not made in Ireland until the mid 1800’s, after bicarbonate of soda (or baking soda) was introduced to the country. Although there is little official documentation on exactly how baking soda as a leavening agent was introduced to the peoples of Ireland, it seems to be that this concept was initially used by American Indians and others in the Americans, according to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (2003). For example, the first published recipe for soda bread was printed in Mary Randolph’s American cookbook “The Virginia Housewife” in 1824 (Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, 2003).

Regardless who first invented soda bread, this type of bread making quickly became an incredibly popular and common accompaniment to meals in Ireland for a number of reasons. For one, few people during this time had access to an oven, and soda bread was traditionally cooked in a bastible – a cast iron pot – that was put right onto the coals of a fire (Steintrager, 2010). Second, soda bread was a simple recipe, comprised solely of four affordable ingredients the majority of Irish families had on their farm: flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda (or baking soda) and soured milk or buttermilk. Since soda bread does not perish quickly, it usually would last for a number of days. Additionally, because Ireland’s climate only encourages the growth of soft wheat – the preferred type of wheat used for cooking soda bread- this bread became a traditional Irish food.

While buttermilk is the preferred ingredient because its acidity activates the baking soda, “sour milk,” was traditionally used in Ireland. The term “sour milk” does not refer to milk that has gone bad. Rather, it is a traditionally cultured type of Irish milk, made by allowing milk to sit out until it reaches room temperature, and then adding a few tablespoons of buttermilk, placing it in a scalded container, wrapped in a towel, and allow it to sit out for about a day (Duane, 2010). When buttermilk was used for the making of soda bread, it was usually left over from the butter making process.

Soda bread comes in two forms: cake and farl. According to Duane (2010), cake, which was more common cooked in south Ireland, is kneaded and rounded into a circular shape, and cut with a cross across the top. This allows the cake to rise as it was bakes in the oven and allows the heat to penetrate the center of the loaf. However, legends say that the purpose of the cross in Catholic families was to scare away the devil (The New Food Lover’s Companion, 2007). This type of bread was often eaten as a side to a main meal, such as to soak up gravy.

Farl, on the other hand, is more commonly made in Northern Ireland. This variety of Irish soda bread is made by breaking the bread into four separate circle-shaped pieces. These pieces are usually baked on the range or stove in a frying ban or griddle. They are then split in half, much like a biscuit (Duane, 2010). Often, farl will be served with a breakfast meal, or topped with butter or jam.

Oftentimes, people associate Irish soda bread with something that has fruit, raisins or seeds in it. Although this is a common practice in Ireland as well, bread with fruit in it would not be referred to as soda bread; rather, it would be deemed “tea bread,” “fruit soda” or “tea cake.” Other varieties include the “spotted dog,” which would include raisins (Duane, 2010).  Breads such as these they would have been considered a luxury item for special occasions only in the 1800’s. However, in modern Ireland, both traditional and non-traditional varieties continue to be a staple in Irish diets, made in the home or purchased at a bakery or grocery store. At restaurants in Ireland, soda bread is often used a vehicle for other ingredients, such as cheese, herbs or garlic  (Steintrager). Soda bread is also commonly made by peoples of Irish heritage across the globe in honor of their cultural heritage, or in celebration of traditional Irish holidays, such as St. Patrick’s Day.

Although I come from an Irish family, I cannot say that Irish soda bread has played a major part of the food related traditions and customs of my immediate family. This is primarily because my family immigrated to the United States in the 1900’s, and traditional dishes have not been passed down throughout the generations. However, because this dish was quite popular in Ireland in the 1800’s, it is very likely that soda bread was commonly prepared and consumed by my ancestors before and after moving to America.

Prior to this assignment, I had not been exposed to a traditional recipe of Irish soda bread. However, after making this recipe a number of times, I have come to enjoy this food for many of the same reasons my ancestors did. Soda bread requires a minimal amount of ingredients – all of which are low-priced and available at a common grocery store. Additionally, because there is no yeast involved, making soda bread requires little handling and kneading, making it quick and easy to make. For someone with a limited budget and tight schedule, this bread is ideal, as it is not only affordable, but takes little time to prepare. It also works well as a side for a number of dishes.  Additionally, it has opened my eyes to a number of different types of other traditional Irish breads that include raisins, caraway seeds, and fruit, that also use a soda bread base. For me, continuing to experiment with baking both traditional and non-traditional versions of Irish soda bread will be a journey in both international culinary fare, as well as a way for me to connect with my own ancestral heritage. I predict that Irish soda bread will continue to be a staple in the diets of both residents of Ireland, and those across the world for years to come.

References

Irish soda bread. (2007). The New Food Lover’s Companion, Barron’s. Retrieved April 23, 2010 from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/barronflc/irish_soda_bread

Duane, D. (2010). Irish soda bread: a brief history and introduction and some recipes. Retrieved April 23, 2010 from http://www.europeancuisines.com/Peters-Mums-Soda-Bread-Recipe

Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. (2003). Irish soda bread history. Retrieved April 21, 2010 from http://www.sodabread.us/Sodabreadhistory/sodabreadhistory.htm

Steintrager, M. O. (2010, March 15). Irish soda bread: not actually Irish? Msn: today food. Retrieved April 24, 2011 from http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/29657606/ns/today-food/

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