A little history of bread in Ireland

Bread was first made by the ancient Egyptians as far back as the year 8000BC when grains, cultivated on the fertile banks of the River Nile, were ground by hand to make flat bread. Over the centuries, farmers across Europe started to grow grains for bread as it became a staple in the diet. The oldest record of bread in Ireland was also a flat bread, dating back to the Stone Age. As bread-making made its way west across Europe, the Norman invasion brought new bread making methods to Ireland. Sometime in the 11th Century, fine sieves were used to separate the bran and white bread was born, a privilege of the nobility. Thankfully nowadays, white bread is for everyone and is an everyday staple food. 

The first Bakers’ Guild charter in Ireland was granted in 1478 by King Edward IV, from which arose (no pun intended!) many Bakers’ Guilds or Societies in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland. The Boot Lane Society and Little Britain St. Society were among the most prominent of these, starting in 1847. In Limerick, there are records from 1837 and records in Cork date from the 1860’s. In fact, there were a great many “journeymen” bakers who would travel around the country wherever the work brought them. 

Of course, in Ireland, we are very familiar with Irish Soda bread. While we might hink we invented it here in Ireland, there are varieties of soda bread found in many countries. What we do know is that baking soda was introduced into Ireland in the mid 19th Century. The origin of bicarbonate of soda (bread soda or baking soda), a key ingredient, is unclear, with claims that it was invented in France or Germany, depending on what you read. Long before this, potash was used in baking by the native Americans to make their version of soda bread. How it works is that the lactic acid in buttermilk reacts with the alkaline bread soda which creates tiny bubbles and so allows the bread to rise. According to some sources, the reason that soda bread was so popular in Ireland intially was that it didn’t require yeast, which was relatively expensive. Furthermore, yeast bread took time for the bread to prove and rise, whereas soda bread could be made very quickly. It was also better suited to the type of flour which was available at the time. 

During the Industrial Revolution, bread tins and milling and baking equipment were developed, meaning that bread could be made on a bigger scale. Other types of bread that grew in popularity over the centuries include the batch loaf and the turnover grinder, which was particularly associated with Dublin.

One of the things that all the bakeries have in common is that the bread is baked every day (well, every night really) for delivery across the country in the early morning so that you can have fresh bread on your table every day. The other, is that the love of bread in the Irish diet remains to this day and truly has stood the test of time. There are some things that just don’t change!

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FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE HISTORY OF BREAD YOU CAN VISIT 

The Hungry Monk, Cong, Co.Mayo

I was in Connemara yesterday working hard (!) and the drive home took me through Cong Village. It really is a gem. Excellent eateries on almost every corner it seems (will try Pat Cohan’s Bar next time). Today I stopped in The Hungry Monk for lunch. I met Aisling Butler a few months ago when she was considering opening something in Cong, and we should be very glad she did!

Today I had the Pork Belly, Tomato and Broad Bean stew. It came served with Sourdough Bread which would be wonderful for mopping up the sauce, but on Aisling’s suggestion, I had mash instead. Lovely, light yet creamy mash, perfectly seasoned. The pork had been slow cooked for 12 hours. Yes 12 HOURS I said! As a result it was so tender, it just fell apart with the fork. The sauce was what you might describe as rustic – chunky veg, plenty of beans, sweet, really flavoursome. A great combination of textures and flavours overall (as we say in the trade, ahem!).

If you’re on the road from Ballinrobe to Galway, divert into Cong, and have your lunch here. I declined dessert, but the sweet treats looked really good – all homemade that morning.

Keep up the great work Aisling and Jon! I’ll be back.