I have a new friend.

It’s called Soda Bread. I’ve discovered it since I got to the UK, but I don’t think it’s anything new. In fact I think most of the population of Ireland have known about it for quite some time. But since we haven’t officially met before now I’d like to take this opportunity to say publicly what an ardent admirer I am of its work.

My dear soda bread is my kind of bread. It’s dependable, sturdy and unpretentious. It doesn’t talk back, and there’s no yeast and no fuss.

It will cosy up quite as happily to  shucked oysters as it will to a slab of yellow butter and a strip of ham.

I first had it at The Sportsman at Whitstable. There’s was a pretty darn special specimen. It was so nurturing, warm, dark and deep that eating it was like listening to Christmas carols on a cold night. There were many other wonderful things to eat at The Sportsman, but I could barely drag myself away from the bread.

Soda bread at The Sportsman

Ever since that lunch I’ve been mooning over SB. I’ve imagined it playing with me at breakfast dressed with some gentle curds and lightly sliced banana. I’ve been wanting to invite it to lunch, so it could join me for a dip in some rustic chicken soup. And I even had a vision in my sleep where it became a  savoury bready pudding to have alongside our Christmas turkey (I had had quite a bit of cheese to eat that night- the delights of dairy dreams).

And so, one cold Thursday afternoon when I was all alone I fired up the oven and got to work.

It was achingly simple and perversely satisfying to get my hands soggy and crumply with dough.  And yes, I did hook my wedding ring through some hoop earrings so it didn’t get crusty.

I didn’t have high hopes for my misshapen friend as it went into the oven. It looked like a mess of oatmeal marle- the sort of thing that even  Oliver Twist wouldn’t dare to ask for more of. 

But there must have been a touch of magic in it.

In fact I know there is, because the recipes decree that you have to make a cross at the top- to let the fairies out before it bakes.

After half an hour the smells wafting about the flat were swoony. It was nutty and slightly spicy. A cross between warm crumpets and gingerbread men.

I ate a hunk warm with salted butter before I dashed out in the cold to see the delightful Angus and Julia Stone play.

All through the concert while I watched the lights of their set shift in fairy tale constellations I looked forward to seeing the sturdy bread, patiently waiting for me at home.

This morning I had two pieces lightly toasted with ricotta, banana and grated nutmeg. With a mug of tea.  Breakfast with friends, old and new. It was everything that I’d hoped for- and more.

Soda Bread

Shopping/foraging

  • 250g plain white flour
  • 250g wholemeal flour 
  • 120 g porridge oats
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar (nb if you want it to be more of a sweet bread add another tbsp or so of brown sugar)- I sprinkled mine over the top at the end.
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 35 g butter, cut into small pieces
  • 500 ml of buttermilk (or full fat milk with a squirt of lemon juice and a tablespoon of yogurt added to it- the acid in the lemon is important it kickstarts the reaction of the baking soda)

Equipment

Big mixing bowl, oven tray, baking paper


Here’s how we roll

1. Preheat the oven to 180 C and dust a baking sheet with flour. I used a pizza tray. It was good.
2. Combine dry ingredients and then rub in the butter with the tips of your fingers until it looks a little like chaff.
3. Pour in the buttermilk and mix it very quickly with a knife.

4. Dump the contents out onto the baking tray and bring it together very gently with the tips of your fingers- you really don’t want to overwork it. It will look like a great big blob. Have faith.

5. Gently pat it together into a round loaf. Score a deep cross in the top. This was traditionally to let the fairies out- but it also helps get the middle cooked.
6. Bake for 40 minutes until when you tap the bottom of the loaf it sounds hollow.
7. Put it on a wire rack and cover with a clean tea towel to help keep it fresh.