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A Slice of Ireland

From Bon Appétit (March 2010)

From Bon Appétit (March 2010)

By Andrew McCarthy

Chasing a memory is usually a losing battle. But I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t planning this cross-country odyssey for the perfect slice of brown soda bread; it just turned out that way. So here I am, in the west of Ireland, at a breakfast table in the small, family-run hotel I first came to more than 20 years ago. I’m looking out the window to the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands beyond, but my mind is on more immediate concerns. I’m waiting for the waitress to return carrying that silver tray loaded with Mrs. O’Callaghan’s brown soda bread.

Looking back, how I got here now seems inevitable.

I spend more than a little time in Dublin—my partner is Irish and we have kids, so we go back often. We have a house there. I love it, yet I hardly ever relax; rarely does it feel completely like home. And when it does, it’s usually around the table. I’ve been told that I never look more at ease than when I’m slathering some Kerrygold butter onto a piece of Irish brown soda bread. Maybe it’s the whole comfort food thing—or maybe it’s something a bit deeper.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain: Finding authentic brown soda bread in Ireland is becoming increasingly difficult to do. More and more, nuts and seeds and God-knows-what-else are finding their way into the mix and changing the traditional recipes. But I’m having none of it. I like my soda bread the old-fashioned way—firm, a little crumbly, and with that slightly sweet aftertaste that lets you know there’s baking soda in there.

Many of my Dublin friends claim that Fallon & Byrne, the gourmet food purveyor on Exchequer Street, has the best traditional soda bread in the city. And it’s easy to see why. It has a golden color and spongy firmness to it. Pastry chef Oliver Gardner confirms that the formula has stayed the same for years. “We mess around with the other recipes, but this one—never. It has a meaty taste people like.”

And it does, but it’s still not quite what I’m looking for. It’s missing something, a delicacy, maybe, that rests just below the surface of the bread I remember. I head over a few blocks to Avoca, on Suffolk Street. Avoca started as a weavers’ retail shop that years ago began serving tea and coffee to its customers as a way of keeping them around. Since then, their cafés have grown into big business.

Green-eyed Dublin native Janette Dowdall wears her blonde hair tucked up under her white cap. She’s been a chef for more than a quarter century and a professional baker at Avoca for the past five years. “Bread is really soothing to make; it’s therapeutic. It sounds silly, but I like to think of the people who are going to eat it while I prepare it.”

There’s an artisanal rusticity to this bread—it is robust, dense, and delicious. “I like it hot out of the oven with loads of butter,” Janette confesses. “A bowl of leek and potato soup and you’re laughin’.” I mention the countrified quality of the bread, and Janette nods. “Sure, everything’s organic to a place. The bread has a real local feel. It’s nice in the west for that reason.”

Janette’s last comment lingers in my mind. The west of Ireland was where I fell in love, with both the country and a woman. And it still retains that authentic quality so many of us picture when we think of Ireland—the endless shades of green, the stone fences, the narrow winding lanes.

And suddenly I’m on the road, chasing the sun toward Kilcolgan, in County Galway. I’m thinking of a place I found once—the way you find so many of the best places in Ireland—by accident. I’m about to give up and then I make a hard left turn down a hedge-bound lane and the road opens, a weir asserts itself on my left, and there’s the thatch-roofed house I’m looking for—Moran’s Oyster Cottage.

Vincent Graham, who comes from “just out the road,” where his father was a farmer, has been at Moran’s for 31 years, and together with his wife, Eileen, has been running the place for the past six. After a dozen broiled oysters with garlic and a few slices of Eileen’s mother’s fluffy, moist recipe out on the picnic tables overlooking the weir, it’s easy to see why they go through more than a hundred loaves in a day. Theirs, too, is a recipe not to be messed with. “Sometimes people try and do too much with it,” Vincent tells me. “They tweak it in some way and then you taste it and think, ‘What the hell’s wrong with the brown bread?’ It’s best kept simple.” And then Vincent puts his finger on it: “Let’s face it—everyone likes the brown bread they grew up on, the one their mother made.”

And in that instant I know where I need to go. Down through Kinvarra and Ballyvaughn, and along the coast road that skirts the Burren. My circuitous route to Ballinalacken Castle Country House & Restaurant reminds me of the old Irish saying, “The shortest way round is the longest way home.” It’s taken me across the country and 20 years, but I’ve come back to where I first tasted Irish brown soda bread, fresh from Mrs. O’Callaghan’s oven.

A tiny, still-elegant woman with red hair, Mary O’Callaghan has been baking her mother’s recipe for brown soda bread through 45 years of marriage and 12 grandchildren. “It takes me five minutes now to make. I like it with just some butter and a bit of the marmalade we get right in Doolin. Or it’s lovely with a slice of salmon for lunch.” Mary made all five of her children’s wedding cakes and did all the baking for the hotel, but now, it’s just the brown bread. She leans close. Her hazel eyes are dancing. “Denis likes it,” she whispers. And it’s easy to see what wowed her husband 45 years earlier, when Mary’s mother was Denis’s teacher at school.

And now the waitress returns and places the silver tray with four slices of Mrs. O’Callaghan’s soda bread down on the table. It’s paler than others I’ve tasted lately, and the crust crumbles slightly under the pressure of my butter knife. When I lift it to taste, I realize just how unfair of me it’s been to have tried to find a replacement for this bread. Others may prefer the spongy texture at Fallon & Byrne (get the recipe), or the sophisticated peasantry of Avoca’s well-crafted loaf, or the moist fluffiness at Moran’s (get the recipe). But this is the taste—it’s the one I know in my bones, the one I’ve been looking for without knowing I was looking. There’s a firmness to its texture, but there’s an elasticity as well. It’s coarse, but there’s a surprising softness—a gentleness to its taste. And it has that telltale sweetness that lingers.

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