Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I'm Irish, but I'm not a Leprechaun

Irish Soda Bread

I came under a bit of flack recently for not “wearing my Irishness on my sleeve”. In an effort to redeem myself in the eyes of my compatriots I hereby bring you two pieces of my proud Irish heritage. Firstly, the unabridged and fully explained lyrics for Christy Moore´s “Lisdoonvarna”. Secondly the recipe for Irish Brown Bread (aka Irish Soda Bread), commonly eaten by American tourists and locals alike in Lisdoonvarna and all over Ireland.

So that you can all get your bearings.. this is what a Spanish person looks like inside a pub in Lisdoonvarna

How's it goin' there everybody,
From Cork, New York, Dundalk, Gortahork and Glenamaddy[i].
Here we are in the County Clare[ii]
It's a long, long way from here to there[iii].
There's the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, [iv]
And the Tulla[v] and the Kilfenora, [vi]
Miko Russell, Doctor Bill,
Willy Clancy and Noel Hill[vii].
Flutes and fiddles everywhere.
If it's music you want,
You should go to Clare[viii].

Oh, Lisdoonvarna[ix]
Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoonvarna!

Everybody needs a break,
Climb a mountain or jump in a lake.
Some head off to exotic places,
Others go to the Galway Races[x].
Mattie goes to the South of France,
Jim to the dogs[xi], Peter to the dance.
A cousin of mine goes potholing[xii],
A cousin of heres loves Joe Dolan[xiii].
Summer comes around each year,
We go there and they come here.
Some jet off to ... Frijiliana[xiv],
But I always go to Lisdoonvarna.


I always leave on a Thursday night,
With me tent and me groundsheet rolled up tight.
I like to hit Lisdoon,
In around Friday afternoon.
This gives me time to get me gear together,
I don't need to worry about the weather.
Ramble in for a pint of stout[xv],
And you'd never know who'd be hangin' about!
There's a Dutchman playing a mandolin[xvi],
And a German looking for Liam Óg O'Floinn[xvii].
And there's Adam, Bono and Garrett Fitzgerald[xviii],
Gettin' their photos taken for the Sunday World[xix].
Finbarr[xx], Charlie[xxi] and Jim Hand[xxii],
And they drinkin' pints to bate[xxiii] the band.
.. Ain't it grand?


The multitudes, they flocked and thronged,
To hear the music and the songs.
Motorbikes and Hi-ace[xxiv] vans,
With bottles - barrels - flagons[xxv] - cans.
Mighty craic[xxvi]. Loads of frolics,
Pioneers[xxvii] and alcoholics,
PLAC[xxviii], SPUC[xxix] and the FCA[xxx],
Free Nicky Kelly[xxxi] and the IRA.
Hairy chests and milk-white thighs,
And mickey dodgers in disguise.
Mc Graths, O'Briens, Pippins, Coxs,
Massage parlours in horse boxes.
There's amhráns[xxxii], bodhráns[xxxiii], amadáns[xxxiv],
Arab sheiks, Hindu Sikhs, Jesus freaks,
RTE[xxxv] are makin' tapes, takin' breaks and throwin' shapes.
This is heaven, this is hell.
Who cares? Who can tell?
(Anyone for the last few Choc Ices[xxxvi], now?)


A 747 for Jackson Browne[xxxvii],
They had to build a special runway just to get him down.
Before the Chieftains[xxxviii] could start to play,
Seven creamy pints[xxxix] came out on a tray.
Shergar[xl] was ridden by Lord Lucan[xli],
Seán Cannon[xlii] did the backstage cookin'.
Clannad[xliii] were playin' "Harry's Game",
Christy was singin' "Nancy Spain"[xliv].
Mary O'Hara[xlv] and Brush Shields[xlvi],
Together singin' "The Four Green Fields".
Van the Man[xlvii] and Emmy Lou[xlviii],
Moving Hearts[xlix] and Planxty[l] too!


Everybody needs a break,
Climb a mountain or jump in a lake.
Sean Doherty[li] goes to the Rose of Tralee[lii],
Oliver J. Flanagan[liii] goes swimming in the Holy Sea.
But I like the music and the open air,
So every Summer I go to Clare.
Coz Woodstock, Knock[liv] nor the Feast of Cana[lv],
Can hold a match to Lisdoonvarna.

There is only one thing more Irish than a good politically-fuelled bar song, and that is “Irish Soda Bread” (you can tell it’s Irish because it has Irish in its name). I have to thank my parents for this recipe; my Mum for baking it almost daily when we were kids and my Dad for having high cholesterol and thereby requiring it as part of his diet.

Disappointingly, I have often tried to recreate our family recipe, but failed. The bread invariably turned out too damp, too hard etc. Here is a great recipe from Maureen Tatlow’s humblingly called “Back to Basic Cookbook”.

Recipe (makes 1 small loaf[lvi])
450 g flour (½ plain flour and ½ wholemeal)
1 tsp salt
1 level tsp bread soda
1 tsp caster sugar
30 g butter
300 ml buttermilk (or natural yogurt, milk and lemon juice)

Given that it took me many attempts to find a good recipe and get this to work, it is rather depressing that Maureen calls it a “quick ‘n easy” bread, but if it encourages you to try it.. so be it.

It is interesting, and a testament to the lady, that Maureen packs more tips and tricks into her 1 ½ pages on soda bread than all that I could find in that other noble Irish institution Ballymaloe’s “The Ballymaloe Bread Book”. Most interestingly Maureen explains the background for this national treasure. Bicarbonate of Soda didn’t arrive into Ireland until the early 19th century. It was here that, as Maureen says, it met its destiny in “wonderful tangy Irish buttermilk”. She goes onto explain the chemistry; alkaline bicarbonate combines with acidic buttermilk to create enough gas in order to raise a loaf of bread. The Irish renamed bicarbonate of soda “bread soda” and so it began…


Here are some of the basics that one should consider when making Irish soda bread:

Preheat the oven fully to 220C. The creation of carbon dioxide begins the instant that “wet and dry” touch. Ensure that the oven is fully preheated before you mix the ingredients.

They say that only real Irish wholemeal can be used to make Irish Soda Bread. This may be a rumour spread by the manufacturer... either way the owl is pretty fierce looking.

In a large bowl mix all the dry ingredients together. Rub the butter through with your fingertips until dispersed. Make a well at the bottom and add nearly all the wet ingredients. Don’t take too long at this point as the chemical reactions are already starting.

Note the flagrant disregard for instructions.

Don’t over mix the dough. There is an inclination to over handle the bread dough. This only elongates the gluten and thereby toughens the bread. You also want to avoid dissipating the gas. It is interesting that Maureen recommends a spoon for the mixing; this lowers heat and thereby reduces gluten elongation further.

A further note on the science. It sounds like I’ve got a bit of a thing against Ballymaloe at the moment, but, hey! If you’re gonna get enemies, why not start with Cork. Their recipe also differs from Maureen’s in a number of interesting ways:
- On a like for like basis, Ballymaloe uses 36ml more milk. Most liquids (including milks) act in order to bind gluten together (toughener).
- It does not recommend the use of lemon or sugar. Both sugars and acids act as tenderizers in the formation of gluten.
- Ballymaloe recommends mixing by hand. At higher temperatures (i.e. those transmitted by the hand), gluten develops more readily through the absorption of water.
These 3 reasons could explain why the Ballymaloe bread has a tendency to turn out a little heavier and with a tougher crust… excuses, excuses.

Aim for a dough that is soft, but not sticky or sloppy. Lightly flour the worksurface and roll the dough out. Pat into a single round. Place upon a lightly floured baking tray. Cut a deep cross with a sharp knife and prod each quarter to “let the fairies out” (I have no idea where this expression came from… I’ll make something up if you like). Bake for 20 minutes at 220C before reducing to 200C for a further 20 minutes.

Check the bread is done. Tap on the underside, if it sounds hollow, it’s done.

Eat the bread quickly. Bread is best served fresh. If you don’t have that much appetite, freeze once it has cooled and sprinkle any air exposed bread regularly to prevent the crust becoming too hard.

Calories are all in vogue at home at the moment (something to do with 1 month of Christmas diet followed by 1 month of Central American diet). I did a bit of investigation; it seems that Irish Soda Bread contains about 140 kcal per slice.

So… there we are… my attempt to put my Irishness back on my sleeve. I hope that I’ve succeeded, and I’ve failed… well, you can just feck off…

--------------- eh, rather extensive footnotes ----------------

[i] Cities in Ireland. Cork is the second largest in Ireland, with a population of 123,062. Dundalk in Louth, Gortahork in Donegal and Glenamaddy in Galway. New York is a city in North America.
[ii] One of the 32 counties of Ireland; located on the west coast
[iii] Possible reference to the famous 1912 marching song; “It's A Long Way To Tipperary”.
[iv] References to famous natural sites in County Clare. The Burren is approximately 300km square of limestone rocks. The Cliffs of Moher rise 120m from the Atlantic Ocean. AKA: The “cliffs of insanity” in the movie “The Princess Bride”.
[v] Taken from the Offical Ireland Mid West website; In Tulla, "There is also a Post Office (doubling as a souvenir shop) and a library - please note, the opening hours are peculiar"... say no more.
[vi] Kilfenora is a town of historical importance in County Clare, it is the site of an early monastic settlement.
[vii] Famous Irish fiddlers.
[viii] Reference to the famous music feastival of Lisdoonvarna that ran in the years from 1978 to 1983.
[ix] Town in County Clare, famous for having a Christy Moore song written about it, its spa, music feastivals and a matchmaking contest in September every year.
[x] On the last Monday of every July Galway hosts the famous horse-racing feastival. This is a seven-day race meet.
[xi] Dog racing; famous in Ireland.
[xii] Activity of swimming in underground caves. Particularly prevelant in the Burren area, Co. Clare.
[xiii] Famous Irish singer. Wikipedia mentions that he was, interestingly, one of the first Western artists to perform in Russia.
[xiv] Frijiliana, town in Malaga. Malaga receives a great number of Irish visitors every year, looking to enjoy some sun and fine local Pizzas.
[xv] Dark beer made from roasted malts or barley. It originated in Ireland. The most famous is a small local brew called “Guinness”, first brewed in 1756 in Leixlip.
[xvi] Don’t get too excited; reference to the musical instrument rather than the culinary slicing instrument.
[xvii] Famous Irish musician of Uilleann pipes and whistle. Has recorded with Christy Moore.
[xviii] Famous Irish musician, ego and former Taoiseach.
[xix] Ireland’s first and still leading (in terms of sales if not content) tabloid.
[xx] Finbarr Harte, Irish country star. He may be one of Ireland’s greatest country stars as he is included on a CD of 40 country stars called “Ireland’s Greatest Country Stars”.
[xxi] Charles Haughey, former Taoiseach of three terms. His lifestyle has been revealed as somewhat extravagent and receipts of more than 8million pounds in donations somewhat illegal.
[xxii] Irish music promoter.
[xxiii] Colloquialism of “beat”.
[xxiv] Line of Toyota vans popular for their size and ability to carry large quantities of rubbish, drink and people... most often in that order.
[xxv] Popular measure of spirits in Ireland; thought to be 70 cl, but opinions vary, probably due to the timing of the question.
[xxvi] Meaning fun or enjoyment, or a impure version of cocaine that contains water and “cracks” when heated. Apparently derived from the English use “to crack a joke”, although this may be a case of the English simply claiming credit for a great Irish invention... (that’ll go down well at home).
[xxvii] Irish teetotalers... limited popularity.
[xxviii] Pro-life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), pro-life lobby group that surfaced during the 1983 abortion referendum in Ireland with the aim of asserting the explicit right to life of the foetus, equal to that of pregnant women.
[xxix] Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, UK pro-life organisation opposed to abortions .
[xxx] Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, the Reserve Defence Force of the Irish army
[xxxi] Famous for the 1983 hunger strike in defence of his innocence.
[xxxii] Irish for “song”.
[xxxiii] Irish open drum, played vertically on the knee.
[xxxiv] Irish for “fool”.
[xxxv] Radio Telefís Éireann, Ireland´s publicly funded broadcaster.
[xxxvi] Generic name for the Klondike Bar, a dessert consisting of vanilla ice cream square coated with a layer of thin chocolate.
[xxxvii] Influential American singer-songwriter, famously played at the Lisdoonvarna music feastival.
[xxxviii] Irish musical group famous for playing traditional music.
[xxxix] Frequent serving measure for previously mention stout.
[xl] Famous Irish racehorse, winner of the 1981 Epsom Derby. Kidnapped in 1983, rumoured by the IRA, and never found.
[xli] Earl of Lucan. The 7th Earl famously went missing in 1973 and has never been seen again. Declared dead by the High Court in 1999.
[xlii] Lead vocal and guitar for the Dubliners.
[xliii] Irish folk music band famous for the theme tune to Robin of Sherwood, the theme to Harry's Game and sprouting Eithne Ní Bhraonáin (Enya).
[xliv] Famous English journalist of the 50´s and 60´s who died in a light aircraft accident on the way to the Grand National.
[xlv] Canadian singer-songwriter.
[xlvi] Irish singer-songwriter.
[xlvii] Van Morrison, Irish singer song-writer. “Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)” features amongst his songs.
[xlviii] Emmylou Harris, country music singer from Alabama, USA. Released the Daniel Lanois produced “Wrecking Ball” in 1995.
[xlix] Irish folk-rock band of the eighties, Christy Moore was a founder member.
[l] Irish folk-rock band of the seventies, Christy Moore was a founder member.
[li] Former Minister Justice in the Haughey government of 1982. He resigned when it was revealed that he had authorised phone tappings of two journalists. Haughey resigned as leader of Fianna Fáil and subsequently as Taoiseach when it was revealed that he knew of the tappings.
[lii] International beauty competition hosted in Tralee every year.
[liii] Famous right-wing politicion in the Dáil from 1943 to 1987.
[liv] The Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist were rumoured to have appeared in Knock in 1879. It has since enjoyed the visits of about half a million pilgrims annually.
[lv] Marriage feast where a young man was rumoured to have turned water into wine.
[lvi] Irish slang for head butt. Although probably not in this context.

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