A Bread Story: A Work in Progress

4:12 PM Posted by erin
53.24801 -7.89203
I grew up wearing green sweaters to school on Saint Patrick's day. Every March 17, I would head proudly off to school in whatever green something that I could find in my own closet or borrow from a sister. In the evening after school, my mom would serve up big bowls of potato chowder paired with slices from a loaf of soda bread, Irish soda bread. She brought it straight from the oven to the table and my butter would melt right into it. It was the only day a year that my family ate soda bread, and since moving out of my parents' home, I haven't had the yearly loaf. Last March 17 when I tried to make it for myself I ended up with a loaf that weighed a half-ton and wasn't cooked through the middle.

Okay, fine, but what does all this have to do with County Offaly? Admittedly, I didn't come here with the intent of following the story of soda bread, or brown bread, or whatever other kind of loaves you can find around here, but now that I've arrived, I can't stop thinking about the stuff.

On Monday, Sara and I met with Tom Dolan and his wife Sandy at the historic mill they own in Belmont.  The rain beat down loudly on the corrugated metal roof of the restored stable where we sat, but inside we were cozy, eating fresh soda bread, made just that morning by Carmel Kelly, a baker in nearby Banagher. As I smothered my slices with butter I thought that I could begin to sniff out a story. Sitting in what was once the largest mill in Ireland, a story about bread doesn't seem like too much of a stretch afterall.

A conversation with David Perry, the last of the mill's owners, confirmed the direction I would take. He told us stories about the Offaly farmers who lined up along the main road from the mill all the way to the center of Belmont, waiting to deliver their bags of oats to be ground. The oats, the same ones used to make the hearty brown bread whose story I'm chasing, were stored in individual bags in the mill and ground for farmers upon request. I'll have to go back to the sound files to check the details, but at some point during the mid-19th century, the mill began to import white wheat flour from North America, Minnesota and Manitoba, mostly. Turns out globalization isn't only a twentieth century story. More on this to come.

Anyway, even if it's a bit of a cliché for an American girl with a tenuous claim to her Irish roots to chase folks around the Irish countryside to capture the story of soda bread…I'm looking forward to having a go at it. Thursday I'll meet with Carmel Kelly at her bakery, I'm working on meeting with a farmer who's still growing his own oats, and I'll try my hand at baking my own bread with Fiona. Onward!

Sample questions for my next few interviews:

Questions for Carmel Kelly

Who do you bake for?
Where do you get your flour?
Where do you do your deliveries?
What recipe do you use?
Is there a recipe or type of bread that is unique to this area?
Caraway seeds? Raisins?
Do you know anything about the Irish Countrywomen Association (ICA)?
Have you entered a contest in any of the local "fairs"?

Questions for a Farmer
How long have you been growing your own oat?
Why do you think people stopped growing oat?
Where do you process your oat?

Questions for Fiona
Where did you learn to bake bread?
What are the ingredients we're using?
How often do you bake bread?