Sitting on a wooden bench in the ring fort of Cahercommaun, with our lunch all laid out in front of us, is an experience I will always treasure. The remains of this triple stone-fort is perched at the edge of a steep inland cliff, and overlooks a wooded valley that just stretches into the horizon. This is part of the Burren in county Clare in the Republic of Ireland. Noel (Senior) who was showing me around this rugged and sometimes surreal landscape had packed us a picnic lunch. Half a loaf of his homemade soda bread, a big chunk of local cheese, pats of butter from the Burren’s happy cows, two big slices of Mary’s (his wife) fruit cake and two flasks of tea. I had also picked up two more slices of cake, a tangy lemon and gooey ginger, from the farmers market in Ballyvaughan, in case we got hungry while we walked up the hill.
We ate our way through the lot and washed it down with the tea, while all around us the music of silence played its variations, interrupted now and again by the lone call of the cuckoo and our voices. The bread was just delicious and when Noel told me how easy it was to make, I was hooked and have made five loaves since I got back to London.
With Noel’s permission, here is the recipe that both he and Mary I am told take turns to make. It takes around 10 minutes to put the ingredients together and about half an hour to bake.
Ingredients (makes 1 loaf)
- 170g/6 oz self raising flour
- 113g/4 oz Howard’s extra coarse wholemeal flour
- 1 tablespoon of wheat germ
- 1 tablespoon of pinhead oatmeal
- Pinch of salt
- Half a teaspoon of baking soda also known as sodium bicarbonate
- 290ml/half a pint of buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil
- 1 egg
Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl so that the baking soda is evenly distributed. In a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg, oil and buttermilk and add to the dry ingredients. Mix quickly and spoon the mixture into an oiled loaf tin. Spread evenly and smooth the top. Bake at 200 degrees C for about 30 minutes and test with a skewer. If it comes out clean, take it out as it is done and cool on a wire rack. Enjoy this yeast free bread!
As we cannot get Howard’s flour in London, I used the strong whole meal, stone ground, organic bread flour instead. Baking soda not only produces the carbon dioxide which influences the texture of the bread, but also sodium carbonate, which is strongly alkaline and can give bread a bitter soapy taste. To neutralise this, acid ingredients like buttermilk, live yoghurt, brown sugar, molasses, fruit juice, vinegar or chocolate are added. A rule of thumb is half a teaspoon of baking soda is neutralized by 1 cup/240 ml of fermented milk, (buttermilk or yoghurt) or 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar.
This evening I did not have buttermilk so used live yoghurt instead and when I next bake will add very small pieces of jalapeño peppers to see what it tastes like – or maybe jalapeño with chocolate?