Sourdough: a wild bread that always rises to the occasion

The invention of sourdough in Ireland is credited to a woman who went for a wander with her lover

Before soda bread we had a great variety of bread, all based on the sourdough method. Photograph: Getty Images

Before soda bread we had a great variety of bread, all based on the sourdough method. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Most of us, over the age of 30 at least, will have memories of our mothers and grandmothers making soda bread. I have my own one of standing in the kitchen of my grandma’s house in Stillorgan, watching her make the daily bread for the household.

I always imagined this phenomenon to be timeless when I was younger, that women had made soda bread forever in Ireland, keeping the household going through their sheer food labour. I was not altogether wrong. Women have been the chief bread makers in Irish history, from Neolithic times up to the 1990s, when men decided that they might try their hands at the bread-making.

I started my own tutelage under my Grandma’s watchful eye, peering upon my endeavours to make sure I did not make a mistake.

Yet I was wrong to think that we have always been making soda bread. Soda bread only came to Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. Before that we had a great variety of bread, all based on the sourdough method. Fermenting wild yeasts was never a problem in Ireland. The chief problem was that we had an awful climate for wheat, therefore our flour was not the best. However, other grains were good: barley, oats and rye were used to great effect. A French man visiting Ireland in 1790 noted, “In the south of Ireland bread is made with oats, in Wicklow with rye, and in Meath with a mixture of rye and wheat.”

Barley bread featured on the menu for many who were fasting, and became particularly associated with hardship and penance due to its dry and hard character. Barley bread and water during the week, with wild salmon, ale and wheaten bread on Sundays. What a life.

The invention of sourdough in Ireland is credited to a woman of the Stone Age who went for a wander with her lover, only to return to find her bread had risen because of the natural wild yeasts in the flour. Whatever about the truth of this tale, it tells of the rich tradition of making bread in Ireland.

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