Even 15 years hence I still remember the welcoming warmth of Ireland.
I was still in college when I went. It was only for a week and a half but the memories of that trip have lasted a life time. I have never been to a place more open, a place where the people are friendlier or more welcoming.
Though I was with a tour group, I was the only solo participant. And being far more adventurous than my typically more elderly tour companions I managed to find myself in the oddest of places.
It was while traveling around the Ring of Kerry that I first tasted Irish soda bread.
I had gone at the close of the tourist season. The very last week that the tour was being offered. Cold weather had set in and the skies for the most part did their best to be broody and ominous.
That morning, our first on the tour, we had stopped in a tiny fishing village. A single major street and a cold beach full of colorful boats some of which has already been pulled in for the winter. I don’t remember where the rest of the tour went, some where warm, I would imagine, but I being adventurous went down the craggy rocks to the waterline. I had wanted to explore the boats, collect a few rocks, and perhaps get a sneak peak at the local wild life.
The rain crept in slowly, first as a cold mist then as a freezing drizzle and by the time that I had managed to make my way back to the road it was coming in icy fat droplets. I was partially soaked; my hands numb when I managed to pry open the door to a small tavern. Not the typical tourist place it was filled with locals. Elderly men and those that had come recently off the boats. It looks like the kind of place you found in a story. Old but well maintained.
There were no individual tables, just rows of communal long tables with benches for seats. As I stood uncertainly in the door way feeling more foreign that I have ever felt, I heard the voice of the tavern keep. “You must be freezing. Come warm up by the fire.”
Still a little numb I allowed him to lead me to a spot just in front of the stone fireplace. It was fragrant with the scent of burning peat and while I warmed my stiff hands back into functionality he set before me a pot of good strong Irish tea, a hearty slice of raisin studded soda bread and a bowl of thick fish stew.
I am not sure I could ever recreate the fish stew. It was probably the kind of thing that varied from day to day, made from the scraps the fishermen brought in. But at the time it was warm and it was filling. As I relaxed I started chatting with the locals, listened to the tall tales that had found a fresh audience in me. They were only too happy to regale me with their local lore. And I ate it up, along with another pot of tea and that piece of soda bread, spread with their local creamy butter.
It was an unforgettable afternoon. By the time the rain passed and I made my way back to the tour bus I was dry again buzzing pleasantly with the afterglow of good food and excellent conversation. Despite the dreariness of the day I was warm inside.
After that I, tea and soda bread, sometimes with a little tea or jam, became my daily lunch. I would find it the smallest of cafes which I would seek out not only because I was poor but because the bread was freshly baked and I could speak with the locals. All of whom were as charming as the country they lived in.
I fell in love with Ireland. No matter how far I go or where I roam a part of my heart will always belong there.
It is beautiful country.
Except for the sheep. Who are everywhere. And scary.
This bread is dense with a crusty exterior. However because it is essentially a quick bread it does not keep very well. It is best eaten the day it is baked, still warm from the oven. This is wonderful with butter, especially my pine nut honey butter.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Irish Soda Bread
Adapted from The Ballymaloe Cookbook
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups low fat kifir or buttermilk
½ cup raisins, packed (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450
Sift the dry ingredients into a medium sized bowl. Add the half the buttermilk and mix with a wooden spoon until the dough resembles shreds. Add the rest of the buttermilk and mix until it is too stiff to work with the spoon.
Sprinkle in the raising and kneed the dough by hand until the raisins are well distributed and the dough is smooth (about 3 minutes). Do not over knead the dough or it won’t rise properly.
Shape the dough into a rough round about three inches high and place onto a lightly flowered cookie sheet. Cut a cross in the top with a flour covered knife cutting no more than a quarter of an inch deep.
Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped. The top will get browned but should not be too dark. If it is getting dark, cover it with foil and continue to bake the rest of the way.
Remove the loaf from the oven and wrap in a clean kitchen towel until cool enough to handle.