An Irishman's Diary
All counties have their colloquialisms, customs and peculiarities. Waterford must be unique, however, in having its own food product, consumed by a third of its population daily, but which few outside the county have ever even heard of, never mind sampled: the humble blaa, asks Michael Kelly.
I've often wondered what visitors to the Deise County must think when they stand in a shop and hear a local say: "Give us a few blaas there, boy, will ye?" What on earth is this exotic-sounding item, this "blaa" of which your speak? Perhaps they are disappointed to discover that a blaa is merely a type of bread roll, but that disappointment will not last, so long as they make it their business to sample one.
Before we go any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear: A blaa is not a bap! Once you've tried one, you will know that to compare the two is to denigrate one and elevate the other. Blaas are what baps want to be when they grow up. Bap-makers in Waterford are a destitute bunch - they loiter in the bread aisles of shops and supermarkets, placing a bap or two among the blaas when no one is looking, in the vain hope that locals might buy a bap by mistake. Thankfully a blaa is instantly recognisable. It is square, rather than round, and its crown is dusted liberally with flour. Because of the floury topping, eating a blaa is like sucking the juice from a rack of spare ribs - it's incredibly messy.
Waterford people are known regularly to leave the house in the morning with a generous coating of flour on their noses, chins and lips, but they do so without shame because that's all part of the blaa experience.
So how did the floury marvels come to be made in Waterford in the first place? The most popular explanation is that they were first baked by Huguenot craftsmen who arrived in the port of Waterford towards the end of the 17th century. The Christian Brothers' founder, Edmund Ignatius Rice, was responsible for making blaas popular with locals when he put them on the menu in the school he established in Mount Sion in 1802. The origin of the word blaa is thought variously to come from either French (pain blanc is white bread and blé is used for certain types of flour), Latin (blandus, meaning bland) or Spanish (blando, meaning soft).
Dermot "Blaa" Walsh and his brother Michael own one of the three bakeries in the city that still bake blaas daily. "We started 20 years ago and we are third generation bakers. It's bred in to us," he says, oblivious to the rather marvellous pun. There are about 12,000 blaas sold each day in Waterford and getting them out around the county in time for breakfast is no mean feat: "It takes about three hours to bake a blaa and we have to finish by 3.30am to let them cool in time for loading the vans at 5am." In a world of culinary globalisation, the blaa stands almost alone in its refusal to become ubiquitous.
Why is it, since it tastes so good, that it is still available only in Waterford? A clue is to be found in the simplicity of its ingredients. "Blaas are not enriched with anything," says Walsh. "They are made from a very specific lean dough of flour, yeast, salt and water. There's no fat, sugar or anything like that in them. As a result they go stale within hours so they don't travel very well. There's no fat in them to keep them soft. It's a morning product and 90 per cent of them are sold before lunchtime."
In other words, the blaa-baker inserts a time bomb of sorts into the product to ensure it is never tempted to travel beyond the county border. Walsh tells tales of Waterford mammies trying to defuse the time-bomb by sending frozen blaas overseas to homesick offspring.
Blaas can be eaten with several fillings or none. They taste great with real butter and some jam or with an egg atop for breakfast. Favourite lunch-time fillings include ham, coleslaw, salad and crisps (not all together, obviously). A particularly odious local custom is to fill your blaa with "red lead", a type of luncheon meat - it is rumoured that red lead blaas are the reason that John Mullane always looks so fired up before inter-county hurling matches.
When I was in college in Waterford RTC (now Waterford IT) the staple diet was "a blaa and two sausages" and a more profound culinary experience it was hard to find. Blaa Walsh's very own recipe for "Waterford Bruschetta" is a great way to use blaas which have survived until teatime. It involves a topping of extra virgin olive oil, chopped tomato, garlic, onion and mozzarella, toasted until golden brown. Yum.
There are two different types of blaa - soft or crusty - and if ever there is to be a civil war in the county it will surely start with a row over which tastes nicer. "Soft blaas are more popular because they are easier for kids to eat. Crusty blaas are very tasty and have more flavour because they are baked longer," says Walsh. Can the blaa be made at home or is there a secret ingredient? "The only secret ingredient is time. The longer you leave them sit before baking, the more flavour they develop."
Walsh is so synonymous with blaas in his native city that most people have forgotten he actually has a first name.
"Most of my friends don't even know my first name. Even my friend's kids say, 'Well, Blaa?' - and I say: 'The name's Dermot, ye cheeky pup!'"