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.
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.
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.
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.
Note the cotton flour bags and the heavy grist-stone.
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.
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.
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 2/3 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon oats
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.
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!)
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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!