Taste Scene

Michael Devlin

Soda bread to buy souls with

Author and journalist Jon Krackauer, who penned the account of the ill-fated expedition to Mount Everest in 1996, ‘Into Thin Air’ said something I will never forget.

Upon summating the mountain, the mountaineer stood at at the very tip-top of the world and surveyed his snow-capped surroundings.

Suffering from a hacking cough he had developed earlier upon arriving in Tibet, weak from his excruciating efforts in climbing the mountain and working his way through his quickly-dwindling oxygen supply, he thought, “Is this it?”

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His words came back to me last week as I sat shivering in a tent at the Co Sligo seaside.

Whilst the day had been periodically balmy and bright, when the sun went down and the breeze whipped up, any residual warmth in the earth vanished without admonition.

Thinking of this year’s summer grinding to a halt with not so much as a whimper I wondered, “Is this it?” I don’t know about you, but if ever there was a summer to forget it’s been this one.

Some of the downpours in past weeks almost had me swimming to the car, rather than running. It’s been a wash out, for all intents and purposes and I for one, am not pleased. It’s a no from me. Without being facetious in the slightest…

In contrast to Krackauer (who had to contend with the death of eight climbers during that disastrous Everest mission, including that of the author’s own guide, Andy Harris), when the Strandhill dawn finally broke that Sunday as I was huddled in the sleeping bag lamenting the winter of my discount tent, I repaired to the nearest eatery and ordered a most substantial breakfast, with a large coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice to boot.

Maybe it was the bone-chilling wind of the night before, or the fact that I was abnormally hungry from enduring that cold for hours on end, but the breakfast of home-made baked beans on toast sodden with butter, slices of chorizo and a crumbling of goats cheese, was one of the most memorable meals of my life.

It had the perfect balance of salty, sweet and wholesome. Most importantly for me at that very moment, it was hot.

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If there’s a heaven and if I get there, I trust the Big Man will orchestrate a repeat of this seminal breakfast on a regular basis, for eternity and a day.

However, instead of offering a repeat of that bean recipe in these columns (I’ve done beans a fair few times over the past year and a bit), I’m drawn to baking and flour this week.

When I was sitting in that tent in the middle of the night, I would have swapped my soul (or at the very least rented a bit of it out) for a slice of home-made bread and butter, and a cup of hot tea.

This recipe is one of my mother’s and it’s as wholesome and as satisfying as home-made bread comes.

The downside for me, as a novice soda bread maker, was that my mother’s ingredient proportions were… sketchy at best.

You see, she doesn’t do measurements like the rest of us, excepting that her eyes do the measuring for her. For you and I though, I have taken the liberty of adding precise quantities.

Neither do you have to be sat, cold and numb in a tent to appreciate this bread. In fact, it works for most culinary situations.

So far I’ve had it with peanut butter, as part of a fry, as a mopping device for spag bol and a dipper for moules mariniere (more about those next week), and it has been an unqualified joy.

I also know from previous experience that when buttered, it also elevates soup to another level.

INGREDIENTS:
250g of plain white flour
250g of wholemeal flour
1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp of salt. 1 tbsp of sugar
30g of butter, chopped up into pieces
500ml of buttermilk

THE PLAN:
Start by pre-heating the oven to 180˚C (fan oven – 200 for conventional) and as that’s happening mix the dry ingredients together – the two flours, soda, salt and sugar – in a big bowl until well combined.

Add the butter and rub in with your finger tips until dispersed.

Then, without preamble, fire in all the buttermilk and mix through quickly with a butter knife.

There’s very little finesse to this next bit but basically you want to handle the dough as little as possible otherwise it’ll get tough.

Bring the dough together in a ball and then set onto a floured baking tray, moulding into a flat circle.

NOTE: The first time I done this I thought it looked like an unholy mess and that it wouldn’t work… but bear with it!

Next, slash the top of the dough with a knife to make a cross and then retire to the oven for 35 minutes.

After that time, it should sound hollow when tapped underneath (or so I’m told) but personally, mine looked cooked and it felt good and solid. I don’t really know what hollow sounds like.

Leave to cool on a wire rack and cover with a clean tea towel. That way the crust will remain soft.

After that, all you’ll need is real butter and that tea I mentioned earlier.

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