There are moments in life that far exceed even your greatest expectations. My memories from Ireland are chock full of those moments, particularly the days I spent in the quaint town of Doolin days before our wedding. Situated on the west coast, it has it all, majestic ocean views, lush green countryside, and the brightly colored houses you've likely seen in postcards. We managed to position ourselves within walking distance of a pub that fed us so well, it made us wish we packed stretch pants. They didn't even bat an eyelash when we asked for pints of Guinness with our eggs at breakfast. We were fresh off an overnight flight, so in our defense, I believe it was still the middle of the night back home.
We stayed at Daly's House, where we were met by Susan, the proprietor. She gave me a warm embrace and I instantly felt like I had reconnected with an old friend. She is the very essence of a warm Irish welcome. Susan is charismatic, humorous, and beyond gracious. When Donny and I arrived in our room, we found a handwritten card with a bottle of wine and a beautiful piece of local Burren stained glass art. I held in my hand an emerald green harp that twinkled in the sunlight against the room's open window. The gift had significant meaning because a harp would be played at our ceremony in the coming days.
I also have memories of squishing into wooden pub benches, shoulder to shoulder, sipping on pints of Bulmer's and Guinness. We stuffed ourselves to the brim with bowls of thick creamy soup. We laughed and joked about our driving mishaps and close calls. We got lost, and rained on, and marveled at the cows outside our windows. We sat each morning around Susan's breakfast table, sipping on tea and coffee, passing around brown bread. As luck would have it, brown bread appeared just like magic at every meal. Granted, not everyone was a fan of this bread. For some, it's on the dry side and bit too bland, but I don't see it. I grew up eating my mother's soda bread, which is also plain and simple. That's what I love about Irish bread. It's homey and mirrors the essence of Irish cooking. It doesn't try to wow you with bells and whistles. It's dense and gritty bread. With a rustic and craggy crust, brown bread is the kind of bread that warms your soul, even on the rainiest of days. The Irish are onto something.
When I returned home, I began missing my brown bread. It's fairly difficult to come by. Soda bread is more likely to make an appearance, but only around St. Patrick's Day. It's unlike the traditional versions, glammed out with candied fruit, glistening with green dyed sugar crystals. I've been planning to make a stop here for an authentic version, but until then, I realized I was going to have to roll up my sleeves to do it right. Susan was just the girl to turn to. She was kind enough to send along her recipe, which gave me a lesson in converting grams and ounces to cups and tablespoons. Pints, it turns out are not only for beer, but for buttermilk too. I ordered the best Irish style wholemeal flour I could find and did a little Irish jig when FedEx dropped it at my door. I was ready to bake brown bread.
It's a bread of the easiest variety. Being a quick bread, there's no yeast involved, just good basic grains. The buttermilk works with the baking soda to act as a leavening agent. It gets kneaded just a few times and plopped in the oven. It's not particularly sophisticated, but it's the kind of bread I imagine has been made much the same way for centuries, unsweetened and lightly salted. I realize I'm supposed to wait and let it cool, but as you can tell from the steam in the picture below, I never do. A slice of this straight from the oven begs to be smeared with golden butter. I'm going to advocate for Kerrygold butter at room temperature. I invited my dad over in the early stages of testing this recipe and he happily washed down a buttered slice with a beer, just like he did in Ireland. If you ever find yourself in the lovely town of Doolin, grab a pint and listen to some music at Gus O'Connors. Be sure to give Susan a big hello for me until I can make my way back. Better yet, stay the night and enjoy some brown bread with your breakfast in the morning. Happy Saint Patrick's Day!
~Susan's Brown Bread Recipe~
2 1/2 cups Irish style ground wholemeal
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp wheat bran
1 tbsp wheat germ
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift the all purpose flour and baking soda into a bowl. Mix in the wholemeal, wheat bran, and wheat germ. Add buttermilk to make a soft dough, lightly mixing to combine. Turn onto a lightly floured board. Knead a few times until the mixture comes together smoothly into a cohesive round, slightly flattened ball. Place dough on a floured baking sheet. Cut a cross over the top of the loaf. Place in a central oven position and bake for 40 minutes. When baked, the bread will have a hollow sound if tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack. Susan notes that a tea towel wrapped around the bread at this stage helps to give a softer crust. She also recommends enjoying it with a cup of Barry's tea. Yields 1 loaf, serves 8.