Irish Soda Bread and A Family Letter

My great-great grandparents Patrick and Mary and five of their six children, immigrated from Ireland in 1846 during the Potato Famine.   I’ve blogged previously about my Irish roots and a visit to an Irish Graveyard, but today’s post will be about a letter from Ireland.     

Patrick and Mary - edited version

Patrick and Mary – tintype picture

They came in a party of twenty or more but lost three relatives from typhus  on the way over.    While in the quarantine station, more of the passengers started to get sick so they decided to jump ship, losing one teenage son in the Quebec bush in the process, who was never found.   They later traced him to northern Ontario, but he had moved out west before they could get word to him.

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

Their 14-year-old son John (my great grandfather in his old age, sitting in the chair) had stayed behind because he had the chance to go to school with the overseer’s son, an opportunity too good to pass up.   He came two years later through New York and an uncle was sent to pick him up.   A family story tells of the letter that was sent from Ireland about his expected arrival.  

In the spring of 1847, their second year, a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were.   He informed them there was a letter for them at a post office near the river, presumably word of where and when their son John was to arrive.   Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it.   The country was all wilderness then, with no roads, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swampy areas to walk across.   When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it on to another hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river trail to that post office, where they told her that they hadn’t known of any settlers with that name, so they had forwarded it to a larger port to the north.  Mary walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter, although it’s unlikely she could read it as she signed the land deed with an X.   It began to get dark and Patrick became worried that she had not returned home.   He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in town.   All told she had walked over thirty miles to get the letter!   Having already lost one son in the bush, she must have been overjoyed when John finally arrived safe and sound.

While admiring Mary’s strength and determination to be reunited with her son, what has always struck me about this tale is the sack of flour.    In my uncle’s genealogy notes, he writes it was a fifty pound bag, surely an exaggeration as when I tried to hoist a 25lb bag at the grocery store I could barely budge it off the bottom shelf.    

Flour

10kg = 25 lbs

Admittedly, I am neither robust nor strong, but Mary in the photo above doesn’t exactly look like an Amazon woman either,  so I assume that must have been a wee bit of blarney!   

In the early days when the land was sparsely populated, grist mills were few and far between.   They were usually located on the banks of a fast flowing  river or stream and and powered by a water wheel.  I took this picture of a flour mill display at a history museum last summer.  

grindstone display museum Note the cotton flour bags and the heavy grist-stone.

grindstone - museum

While large grist-stones were associated with commercial mills, many farms had their own smaller grindstones for grain or sharpening instruments.  (My brother kept ours from the farm).  Once settlers had harvested their grain, they then had to grind it by hand using a mortar and a pestle or a pair of grindstones placed on top of one another, both time consuming methods.      

So for Mary to be able to buy a bag of ground flour at a mill in town must have seemed the height of luxury, an endeavor well worth the effort involved in lugging it home.   When we toss butter, milk, eggs and flour into our grocery cart, we forget how much of our ancestors time was spend just obtaining the simple necessities of life, although I do sometimes think about this family story when I pull out the flour from my pantry to do some baking.   Flour

Today we’re going to make Irish soda bread.   There are many versions of this bread, some are more scone-like with white flour, sugar and raisins, and some are like the denser darker brown bread traditionally served with orange marmalade at breakfast, but I’m going to experiment with something in between.   As I’ve never made any kind of bread before, wish me the luck of the Irish.    

Irish soda bread was popular in Ireland as it could be baked in a covered skillet over the fireplace, and did not require an oven or yeast like more traditional breads.   It relies on the chemical reaction between the sour milk/buttermilk and the baking soda instead of yeast.   Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour

1 3/4 cups all-purpose white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 (level) teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons cold butter, cubed

1 egg

1 2/3 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon oats 

Irish Soda Bread

I made one small change – as I only had self-rising white flour with the salt and baking POWDER already added, I cut the salt back to 1/2 tsp.   The baking powder didn’t make any difference, it just made it rise a bit more.

Instructions:

Heat the oven to 425°F (215°C).   Mix together the flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl.    (NB: make sure the baking soda is a LEVEL teaspoon otherwise the bread may taste funny and/or turn green!) 

Irish Soda Bread Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles bread crumbs.    (I did not take a picture here, as my hands were too messy.   Those food network divas must have their own photographers!)

In a separate measuring jug, whisk the egg and buttermilk together.  The egg is optional but makes the batter richer so I added it.   Pour 3/4 of the liquid into the centre of the dry ingredients.   

Irish Soda Bread

Using your hands mix the flour and liquid together to form a loose dough.  The dough should be soft, but not too sticky.   Add more of the liquid as needed, but try not to overwork it.  

Turn onto a floured work surface and bring the dough together into a round shape about 1 1/2 inches thick.   (Again, no pictures but I used my new glass kitchen board, new as in found in the basement cleanup.   For someone who doesn’t cook that much I seem to have a lot of kitchen stuff).glass work board

Place formed loaf on a baking sheet dusted with flour.   Brush a bit of the left over liquid on the top of the bread and then sprinkle the rolled oats on the top.   This gives it a nice rustic-looking appearance. 

Irish Soda Bread

Now for the most important part.   Using a sharp knife, score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top.  Then poke a hole in the four quarters of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your bread.  Do not skip this last step, unless you wish to incur their wrath!   

Irish Soda Bread

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 F in order to give it a nice crisp crust, then turn down the oven to 400 F and bake for 30 minutes more.   When done the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the bottom.    Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.    

Irish Soda Bread

As I’ve never made anything with buttermilk or whole wheat flour before I have nothing to compare it too, but I was very pleased with the way the bread turned out – the rustic taste, appearance and ease of preparation – and would definitely make it again.   I was especially keen on the part about the blessing and the fairies as I like a bit of folklore with my baking.     

Irish Soda Bread

Serve warm slathered with some chilled fresh butter and enjoy!   Goes great with potato soup, but we’ll save that for next year, as we’re already over 1400 words.    (It was nice the next day too, served with jam).    

Now, we’ll have a wee small toast to John, using his own crystal decanter and glasses.   I think he’d like that it’s whiskey imported straight from his old homeplace, Leitrim County. 

Maybe another thimble or two…

Whiskey decanter two

I should clean out the basement more often….

For those who don’t drink, I experimented with this no-alcohol low-calorie version of an Irish Coffee, adding an ounce of Skinny Syrup, Irish Cream flavor, to a mug of hot coffee and topping with a squirt of low-fat whipped cream from a can.    Magically delicious! 

 Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patricks' Day leprechaun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

 

 

45 thoughts on “Irish Soda Bread and A Family Letter

  1. Ally Bean says:

    The family portrait is an amazing glimpse back in time. The clothes are so different from how we dress today. I like how nicely posed it is, everyone looks proper but not uptight.

    I wonder about that sack of flour story, too. Coming from an ancestry filled with Irish individuals, I’m going with you that it might be a wee bit of blarney.

    I haven’t made Irish Soda Bread in a few years and now I want to. I’ve never put oats on top of it, but that’s a pretty touch. Seems fitting to serve it with a wee draught of Irish Whisky too. Good idea.

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    • Joni says:

      Thanks Ally…..I’m always struck by how long the girls dresses are….it’s probably from around 1910 or 11 just before skirts got shorter n the 20’s. Do you use white flour or whole wheat for your Irish soda bread? I wondered it if would make a difference in the taste. Also some people add sugar so it’s sweeter.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jo Shafer says:

    What a delightful chapter of your family history, not to mention making Irish Soda Bread. It’s so easy to do until I realize that I have no buttermilk on hand! This time, I’ll plan ahead and add to this week’s grocery list. Always, of course, I bless the loaf with a deep cross, but I didn’t know about poking a hole into each quarter. Reckon I oughta do that, too, eh?

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  3. Linda Schaub says:

    The pictures were really great Joni. I love seeing old-time pictures and how everyone looked so deadpan. Your bread turned out great and looks delicious … I like your folklore you shared just before putting the bread in the oven. You sure have all the right hostess-with-the-mostest dishes/glasses and “thimbles” to make this post a lot of fun. Toast yourself on a job well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      The two decanter sets were from the farm attic, so I think they must have belonged to John and Ellen as things were fancy in the Edwardian age. My parents never used that kind of stuff so that’s why it was in their farm attic and then got moved to my basement. I also have some crystal vases and butter dishes and things that I don’t even know what they were used for. I remember there being a few remaining pieces of monogramed silverware too when I was a kid but they slowly disappeared. I do have a lot of dishes and kitchen stuff for someone who doesn’t cook that much, except now that I’m retired. I’ll gmail you tomorrow or Sat – I hesitate to reply until I know your computer guy is finished?? How is it going?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I like how you set it up with the pictures and the vintage tableware. I have a few items that were from my great grandmother and they are up in a cupboard except a plate on the corner cabinet which my great-grandmother had on plate rack/railing decor in her kitchen on the farm. My grandmother also had the plate rack/railing decor at her house – I can remember it, but they stopped putting plates there and she gave them to my mom … don’t know why, but she got squirrels in her attic, and they had to tear the attic apart and it was near the kitchen/living room.

        I am responding to a few comments this morning – sigh. Otherwise, it is encompassing an entire evening it seems to get it all done. I might have to return to doing my own comments in the a.m. … still ironing this new system out. Was going to do a post today … have a lot of nice swan pics … perhaps I will do another Wordless Wednesday … but I don’t want to copy your idea … I would only show all the swans in a group and call it “Swanee River” and then have some individual swans to showcase below that. I wasn’t going to write much about them anyway except I saw a group of swans far away, was bummed they would look so tiny, then was talking to a photographer there for about 15 minutes or so, turned around and they were moving toward the pavilion area … was only going to say that and mention how dirty they were from diving. But I guess that is obvious … still doing a post that way – I have a lot of pics to use up and not going to go to any big parks I don’t think – landscape is blah right now – will wait til things brighten up and hope rain does not happen in conjunction with Spring like it did the last two years … days and days of torrential rain, usually on the weekend. The swans were last Saturday. I am trying to stay away from sitting too much if possible. I still can’t get into the reading mode – I stepped away from the computer but listening a lot to the news and the last two nights listening to Trump and our Governor at 9:00 p.m. news coverage/speeches re: the Coronavirus. Then recaps … then went to bed and elevate my legs. Was thinking of getting a bigger wedge – don’t really like this one as I am a side sleeper, but I’ll do what is necessary.

        As to the computer install – the last time he worked was Tuesday afternoon when I had to use my own computer – he worked a bit on Tuesday night on the new laptop and never returned (no call, e-mail anything). I am going to go out this weekend to walk –
        maybe a big park just to give the car a long run, not necessarily to take photos and have to devote some time to the house. Take your time. My computer has to be turned on (as far as I know). I have a G-mail address too and can give it to you – I only set it up as I thought I was going to take videos with the camera.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        Go ahead and post the swan pictures…..the more the merrier…..my mother painted them from the picture I posted, so I may use that in another post. Howling winds today so no walking here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        It was very windy here Joni – no Park for me either and it has been windy all day. I think I may use the swan pictures then … I did not want to look like I was copying you. I may try to do that Wordless Wednesday more often. That will be nice to feature your mom’s artwork. I never see anyone sketching or painting at that park with the swans, but it is fairly small. At Heritage Park I went later in the morning one time and there were two women doing watercolors and I was watching them. One was friendly, the other one didn’t really invite any interaction. One was painting a historical house and the other a flower garden.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I may do that with some seagull pictures too … I have a lot of pictures from the last month or so … I just spent a long time doing a very long post for Monday about a walk last weekend. I just walked at my regular park today – will go somewhere else tomorrow, though there are not many things going on right now as no color and everything looks blah. I want to give the car a long run though, then get gas on Monday and not going on a lot of trips the next few weeks anyway, so will do errands so I can stay away from crowds … hopefully this C-virus blows over sooner rather than later. The news is 99% about it now – very disheartening to hear it all and in Italy, no walking/jogging/playing in any parks there while everyone is still quarantined and for the immediate future as well is what I heard.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        I never thought about them quarantining the parks! I hope it doesn’t come to that here for your sake, but most likely their parks are more crowded. I was a bit upset today to hear they may be closing the libraries here, as while I do have a stash of books at home, I do read a lot of bestsellers too. Went to the grocery store today for the first time in a week and was amazed how empty the shelves are looking – no TP, potatoes, cheese slices, pulp-free OJ etc. I usually stock ahead anyway so not really out of anything, just my weekly run. Now, schools are closed for 2 weeks post March break next week, and many other cancellations. Be glad you work from home!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I never thought of that either and was amazed to herar that Joni. I went on a little longer trip today and was walking/out for six hours. I figured I’d go to the allergist and get gas tomorrow and limit my long rides for a little while. My gas station is a convenience store and tons of people in/out all day. I never thought about the library – I’m sure our is closed down too unless the students who don’t have internet or computers at home need to go there, but I can’t see that happening. I wonder if families had to buy computers this weekend – many people only use their phone or have just one “family computer” and if they have to attend school? Our schools don’t go back til April 6th and we don’t have Good Friday or Easter Monday off school/work here, but they could have waited until after Easter. Ann Marie sent me a text of a completely cleared-out Meijer. Ann Marie helps out an elderly couple in her apartment complex by doing their shopping – she has severe COPD, the husband has cancer(yes, Ann Marie is a gem is she not?) Anyway, she went shopping for them/herself Friday and Saturday (twice) and today and could not buy what she went for. I am like you and was stocked up for Winter and so would have picked up a few items, but think I won’t even bother while I’m out. I went past two big grocery stores across from one another today at 9:00 a.m. and looked like Christmastime – same thing when I passed again around 3:00 p.m. and jam-packed … I was being proactive but think I will skip going as they likely are still out and not restocking. Thank goodness we were stocked up. The TP hoarding plus cleaning supplies as well. I am glad I work from home and figure that I only go out about once a month in the Winter to run errands, and the rest of the time I’m alone (unless it was like going to pick up my taxes or take the car to have the tire sensor fixed) so it will not be as strange to me as to some people.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        They’re closing all activities with over 250 people…..probably restaurants and bars will be next. I cancelled my lunch date for tomorrow as my friend didn’t want to go. Went back to the grocery store today and they had OJ and potatoes, but no bread or TP. I do think it will get worse before it gets better, this is just a little lull period.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I understand from the news that the big grocery stores like Walmart, Costco and Kroger (Meijer is smaller and just in Michigan and Indiana I believe) … they will be having shorter hours to disinfect and then stock shelves – they were advertising for help at Meijer – I get e-mails from them so got an e-mail saying they needed help to keep items stocked on the shelves – what about after the crisis is over? I guess they get laid off. Pretty scary and now they have made it 50 people and now, the Governor suggests no bigger group than 10 at a time – that, however, is not mandatory, just suggestion. The 50 is mandatory – so much for a little Irish cheer with your friend (even if its Chinese food on the menu). I would worry too. I came home and actually had taken soap and papertowels downstairs to wash my hands and my arms before coming back upstairs – for my shots, they have to give me shots in each arm. Not taking any chances – got “de-germed” downstairs.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        PS. If you are used to being a home more, like you and me now that I’m retired, we are okay, but for many people they’ll go crazy, esp if they have to keep kids entertained, so I think that’s why they are closing the library, activities, arenas, theatres, bars and restaurants, because the natural inclination is to congregate. Even got an email from church that weekend mass was cancelled!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        Yes, it is about self-entertaining too because if people cannot watch their sports on TV (and that seems to be one of the biggest complaints I am hearing that not only are people cooped up, but there is no sports except horse racing to watch and now they may delay the Kentucky Derby until September). So, if they don’t read … but so many people have cable TV or Netflix and there is internet … you cannot get bored. I asked Ann Marie if she is volunteering at the soup kitchen now that she can’t visit Steven. She had taken a leave while he was at the hospital and the nursing home, but they cannot visit the residents now … she said they have asked the older volunteers to stay away for now. She is active in the church – no mass, Sunday school (she teaches it) … strange new normal for awhile. When is the art event for your mom’s paintings? I know you said you have to submit entries a year in advance – is it in 2020?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        Her art show is not until next mid-November and over the winter. The museum closed today along with all the county funded galleries and libraries for at least 3 weeks. I’ll miss the library but I have that stash of books from bookoutlet to read. And soon I may be able to do yardwork and read outside on the porch, something to look forward to.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        Have you ever used a Kindle Joni? One time Kate Crimmons wrote a post about a new one she had gotten, and I asked her some questions about it. I know some people prefer an actual book, but I wonder if there are cost savings in getting a Kindle or other type of e-reader. Also, does your library have an interloan system for e-books? Yes, if the weather keeps going as nice as it has been, you will be outside in no time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        A good suggestion but I’m not keen on Kindles. My eyes get sore just from blogging/computer some days, somehow the printed page isn’t quite as much eye strain, esp if I get large print books. The library has a loan system for e-books but I’m wondering if that is suspended now too – I should check the website – good idea. They also loan out the devices for trial, but are closed now. I think if I traveled I would buy one though. People seem to have problems loading the library books onto them, as they have a tech person now in the library to assist people, but it might be the program they use.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        A fellow blogger made comments on Kate’s post about loading books from her library onto her reader, but it was not a Kindle, but another e-reader. She said sometimes it worked, other times notso much. Long before the Kindles came out, it might have been called a “Nook” from Barnes and Noble was out. We have so few bricks and mortar bookstores now and I think Barnes & Noble is the only one left in this area. We had Waldenbooks for years and that is where my mom/I would make a quarterly trip with our list of favorite authors for paperback books and the rest we got from the library (new hardcover releases). And Dorothy Garlock books which I mentioned that we bought directly from the author’s site. I can remember going to Cole’s Bookstore in Oakville at the nearby Hopedale Plaza for items for school, like dictionary, or a small map – things like that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        PS. The librarian told me it actually costs the library more money to buy the Kindle dowloads than a hard copy of a book, as they are limited to how many times they can loan it out or something….I guess publishers have to recoup their money somehow. I think Kindles are about $200?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        Oh, I didn’t know that – didn’t know the price either. A woman on the bus that I kept in touch with after I worked from home, was an avid reader and the library was next to her house … she had pretty much read every book of interest to her in the library (she used to read all weekend and on the bus and at night) and told me she broke down and got a Kindle and was getting e-books from other libraries which is why I asked. I have never used one either.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Anne says:

    “Using a sharp knife, score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top. Then poke a hole in the four quarters of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your bread.” Right in the middle of a most delightful read, you have answered a question I have had in mind for years – why the Irish Soda Bread is cut into four. I never knew about poking holes in the quarters, but will certainly do so next time!

    Liked by 1 person

      • annieasksyou says:

        A delightful sweep from family history to the staff of life—with a wee toast at the end.
        I will now always consider the emancipated fairies when seeing Irish soda bread.
        I intend to try your recipe soon. and if the bread accidentally turns green…well, not a bad outcome for St Patrick’s Day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        Emancipated fairies – I love it! I thought green would be ok, but not the funny taste so I was very careful for once when measuring and used one of those calibrated teaspoons not my regular every day ones. I

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  5. J P says:

    Sounds and looks delicious! And here I am with no buttermilk in the house.

    The Irish part of my family was not one for passing along old recipes, so all of mine come from the Norwegian/German side.

    And that was a mighty long walk for a bit of mail. I cannot blame the lady one whit for indulging in the luxury of pre-milled flour after that trek!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I think you can sour milk by adding lemon juice but I’ve never done it? The buttermilk looked rich and creamy when I poured it out, although I don’t see it in my regular grocery store….along with no Toilet Paper, bread or potatoes. I got to thinking about the potato famine after I saw the empty potato shelf….

      Liked by 1 person

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