My grandmother’s soda bread is broad as a hubcap and thick as a dictionary, with a golden crust that gives way to a heart that is creamy white, soft and fluffy. It’s best enjoyed straight from the oven, still steaming, with just a chunk of cheese or dollop of butter, jam and a cup of tea.
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I’d say her soda bread is among the best in Ireland, but then a lot of my Irish friends would claim the same of their grannies’. For all its banality and ubiquity, this humble loaf remains a beloved staple that reveals more than you might initially expect about the country. Cheap, quick to prepare and served in every household, it fuelled the nation in times of hardship and for so many of us still the smell of freshly baked bread brings back warming childhood memories of when things were simpler and life seemed a bit more carefree.
That perhaps explains why Ashford Castle, a very luxurious hotel set elegantly beside Lough Corrib on the Galway-Mayo border in the west of Ireland, has made the craft of baking soda bread a central component of its new programmes introducing visitors to the best of Ireland’s cultural custodians, all artisans who ordinarily remain firmly out of public view.
From trawling the coastline of Connemara with a shellfish farmer to visiting the workshop of a stone carver, there are 32 different experiences that can be combined across Mayo, Galway and Clare to give truly distinctive day-long introductions to Ireland’s culture and character(s).
I was one of the first to try out the portfolio, on a food-centred itinerary that started with baking soda bread. Facilitating everything was guide Eoin Warner, a knowledgeable storyteller and authority on Irish mythology, language, culture and history who was ready to share fascinating insights into the country. ‘There’s a great sense of promise in the air,’ Eoin said in reference to the softening weather as we set off on the first dry day to follow Storm Jorge, though the statement tallied just as well with the encounters awaiting us.
To ensure availability and proximity to whatever other experiences guests might choose, the hotel has partnered with two local independent soda bread bakers. My teacher Orla, who lives in a converted 200-year-old church with a graveyard in its grounds, had just taken her own morning loaves from the oven when we called at her door. The aroma wrapped us in nostalgia and we slipped into easy conversation about family, home and tradition as I made my own loaf at her kitchen table.
Given I can just about manage to boil water and had never actually attempted to join my grandmother in her bread-making endeavours, it turned out to be a good thing that baking soda bread couldn’t be easier. While making the likes of sourdough takes an awful lot of effort, all I really needed to do was chuck the ingredients in a bowl, add buttermilk and mix. In fact, with the oven preheated and the ingredients I needed already laid out, preparation only took seven or so minutes. Slowly churning the batter by hand took on a meditative quality for me – Orla and I agreed there was something therapeutic to it, and I was pleased to be taught something I could so easily integrate into life back home.
While my bread baked, we ate her still-warm batch, chatting about this and that as shards of light beamed through the old church windows and her Irish wolfhound dozed by the turf fire. It was a very normal, everyday occasion that felt completely lovely.
When it was time to leave, my freshly baked loaf was presented to me, swaddled in cotton. I set it on my lap like a hot water bottle and we drove on, with Eoin indicating points of interest in East Galway, a part of Ireland rarely visited by tourists or even locals like me who grew up less than an hour away in Galway city.
So many hotels claim they’re all about engaging with the community, but in reality it’s rare for them to get the balance right. For all its simplicity, this day out moved me. I look forward to following Orla’s super-simple bread recipe at home and recalling those memories, and expect this will be an experience I’ll look back upon fondly for many years to come.
The Daily Telegraph