Soda Bread and Me!

by Jane Conlon

The first time I baked a loaf of soda bread was in Ballymaloe Cookery School in September 1994. I was 21.

But I had already fallen in love with cooking as a young teenager. My mother was and is a very good home cook. There was always food in the air and comforting meals on the table. I learned my first recipes from her, almost by osmosis. It didn’t take long for the magic of cooking to work its spell on me.

As a child visiting our beloved grandmother Alice, there was always a fresh soda loaf on the table. It still evokes for me feelings of warmth and love and belonging. My mother carried on this tradition. Winter days were warmed by the aroma of hot bread coming from the oven – and soda bread most of all. For me it is the ultimate comfort food.

I have made all kinds of breads over the years but my favourite still is soda bread. I keep coming back to it. I love its simplicity. It is the product of just four ingredients: flour, buttermilk, bread soda and salt. Mix them gently. It is a delicate process. There’s no endless kneading and knocking. It requires a light touch. The mix and the maker are holding hands here. It only takes a few minutes.

Travels as a student took me to kitchens in Boston, California and Sydney. It was a hugely exciting experience, learning about food from all over the world. In 1995 I moved to London to work in a prestigious restaurant near Westminster called The Atrium. There I trained under an Italian chef, Cesare. He was a genius with bread and pastry. Every morning shortly after dawn we’d start with the yeast breads for the day. The process took several hours: warming the yeast, kneading the dough, proving the dough and knocking it back. Everything was done with meticulous care. The result was some of the best bread I’d ever tasted. He was a very good teacher. He opened up a whole new world of baking for me.

Then he introduced me to an array of flavours which would transform the basic loaf: pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, onion, herbs, nuts and seeds. I watched and learned. It was a brilliant apprenticeship.

When I returned to Ireland to set up my first restaurant, I decided to give these Mediterranean influences an Irish twist. I applied them to the original Irish recipe and discovered that the softer texture of soda bread merged beautifully with all these flavours. The buttermilk & bread soda combination seemed to be more compatible with these ingredients than yeast and water. It was a revelation to me.

Over time, and after many years of testing and tasting, I managed to refine the combinations of ingredients and flavours. The result I hope is a happy marriage of the old and new, traditional and modern.
Recently I calculated that I’ve made some 35,000 soda breads over the last 25 years, between my time working as a chef in the food industry, and later as a busy mother to a growing brood at home. In our previous restaurant, every customer was welcomed with a basket of freshly-baked bread in a selection of flavours. The reaction was consistently enthusiastic. They wanted to know all about the bread: where it was made, what were the ingredients, where they could buy it.

This generous feedback gave me great encouragement. It convinced me that people wanted more of this wonderful Irish product. I hoped some day to share it with the wider world. I would like to think that the time is right to do so now.

 

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