Surely St. Patrick himself, born in Britain during Rome’s rule, reflected on his successful efforts to Christianize Ireland’s Celtic population. During his rumination, he feasted upon slices of iconic Irish soda bread topped with slabs of butter straight from cows grazing on Ireland’s green meadows. Soda bread, along with corned beef, cabbage and potatoes, are the essence of old Ireland, right? Well, no.
The culinary roots of these “traditional” Irish foods seem to be a bit shallow and embedded in the soil of the American side of the Atlantic, not in Ireland. Cabbage, the ubiquitous vegetable of northern Europe, may have found its way to St. Patrick’s plate. The other foods were certainly not there. For centuries, the Irish valued cattle for dairy production, but turned to wild game for meat. Potatoes, from the Andes, weren’t introduced to Ireland until the 17th century (St. Patrick was born in 387 AD). And baking soda, the leavening in soda bread, wasn’t invented until the 1840s.
It appears that soda bread is as Irish as spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs are Italian: both are more the culinary achievements of immigrants who came to the United States and reinterpreted the food of their homelands, using the abundance and ingredients of their new home to embellish memories of their distant tables.
My introduction to soda bread illustrates this mixing of traditions and flavors. Although my family recognized the bread’s Irish influence, we had absolutely no Irish genes in our DNA and celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with only the occasional nod to corned beef and cabbage. Nevertheless, the bread came to our table every mid-March — via Italy and the St. Louis, Mo., enclave known as The Hill.
This area, south of Forest Park, was settled in the 1830s by German and Irish laborers who worked in nearby clay mines. In the latter part of the 19th century, immigrants from northern Italy and Sicily joined the earlier residents and The Hill developed a very Italian imprint in which food was central to the community. Over the decades, small bakeries and specialty stores met the demands for the Italian immigrants. By the 1960s, it was a vibrant community, a treasure trove for anyone looking for flavors beyond Middle America.
My father worked close to The Hill and knew the neighborhood well. While I was growing up, we explored the Italian shops and became regular customers. Our favorite was the Missouri Baking Co., located at Edwards Street and Wilson Avenue. They produced a crusty sour dough bread that still stands as one of the best I’ve eaten. But every March, some shelf space was cleared for round loaves of Irish soda bread studded with raisins. This slightly sweet bread that tasted so good plain, came into full flower when slathered with fresh butter.
The bakery was established in 1924 by three brothers, the Gambaros. Owned and run today by the granddaughter and grandson of one of the founding brothers, the Missouri Baking Co. still produces soda bread. “We’ve made soda bread for years, and our Irish customers love it,” co-owner Mimi Lordo said. “Early on, one of the popular breads we produced was pane tramvai. That is a crusty white bread studded with raisins, originally made in northern Italy.”
When Irish customers began to ask for soda bread, Lordo said that the family started to experiment with a quick-bread recipe, but thought the resulting loaf was too hard and dry to sell. They didn’t give up, though, seeing an opportunity to develop a popular product. Knowing that the pane tramvai sold well and tasted good, they tried adding raisins to the soda bread and eventually created the recipe still used today. The bakery produces 600 to 750 loaves between late February and St. Patrick’s Day, depending upon demand, according to Lordo.
Soda bread, a relatively new addition to the Irish diet, has a history closely connected to the events of the 19th century. Before soda bread, yeast bread was somewhat common in Ireland. However, through much of Irish history the average household lacked an oven and bread was not baked at home. The first yeasted breads were most likely produced by monks in monastery ovens. They used leavening derived from an early form of brewers yeast, barm, which conveniently came from the foam on fermenting ale or cider. Of course, the monks produced plenty of beer to keep the bread ovens filled. Then, at the end of the 17th century, Huguenot refugees settled in Ireland. Bread baking spread beyond the monastery walls as the French Protestants introduced bakeries and new bread varieties to the Irish.
England had consolidated its rule over Ireland in 1541. By the 1800s, most of Ireland’s agricultural products were exported and used to fill British coffers, not to feed the local population. As a result, for the bulk of their food, the Irish depended on potatoes, which grew plentifully and were cheap to produce. When the potato crop failed from 1845 to 1851, the Irish quickly felt the consequences. The Great Famine resulted in huge population losses: an estimated 1 million people died from starvation and another 2 million emigrated in search of full bellies and a better life.
Baking soda, invented in the mid-19th century, turned out to be not only propitious for the culinary repertoire in general, but also the catalyst for a hearty loaf of bread that could help feed people during years of famine. Between 1836 and 1843, several U.S. publications ran soda bread recipes using potassium bicarbonate, a precursor of baking soda. After baking soda was invented, potassium bicarb fell into disfavor because it added an off-flavor. In 1846, baking soda began to be produced commercially in New York.
Perhaps Irish emigrants, writing letters to family back home, shared these recipes and news of the leavening agent. Baking soda was available in Ireland by the latter part of the 1840s. The new leavening not only popularized quick breads, it made producing bread in the very basic Irish kitchens possible. In contrast to yeast loaves, quick breads could be baked at home, in heavy pots nestled among the hot embers in a fireplace. Even better, baking soda was the perfect leavening to use with the soft wheat flour common in Ireland. This flour produces tender pastry desirable in quick breads, but doesn’t have the gluten needed to produce a good rise in breads leavened with yeast.
True Irish recipes for soda bread are simple, consisting solely of flour (usually whole wheat), sour milk, baking soda and salt. Very occasionally, raisins were added to the bread. This variation, called Spotted Dog, was an infrequent treat.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Irish immigrants encountered a greater variety of food and soda bread evolved as new flavors were incorporated into the basic loaf. On this side of the Atlantic, the old whole-wheat recipes fell into disfavor because unrefined wheat was considered peasant food. The upscale choice was white flour. The recently arrived Irish came into contact with other immigrant groups and new flavors such as caraway, orange zest, butter and dried fruit were incorporated into the bread, as it replaced its Irish brogue and with American slang.
Should St. Patrick join in the typical U.S. celebration of his name day, he would be surprised at how he’s remembered. But even if the saint would not recognize soda bread as a native Irish food, surely he would appreciate its mixed cultural heritage and enjoy a slab of the bread accompanied by fresh Irish butter. Especially if he happened to get a loaf from the Missouri Baking Co.
Years ago, probably in the 1990s, Gourmet magazine published a recipe for soda bread that included raisins and caraway seed. By then, I was in Washington, D.C., and no longer able to get Missouri Baking Co.’s bread, so the recipe became my standard. Over the years, I’ve made tweaks here and there, most notably in the flour. The original recipe called for all-purpose flour, but spelt adds heft and nuttiness to produce a more substantial bread.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup spelt flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 ounces butter
- 1 1/4 cup raisins
- 1 1/2 tablespoons caraway seeds
- Grated peel of 1 orange or lemon
- 1 1/4 cups cold buttermilk
- 1 large egg, beaten
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Butter an 8-inch cast-iron frying pan.
Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to combine well.
Cut the butter into small pieces and work it into the dry ingredients with your fingers.
Stir in the raisins, caraway seeds and citrus peel.
Combine the buttermilk and beaten egg, then pour over the flour mixture. Mix until the flour is incorporated, but do not over mix.
Immediately place the dough in the buttered frying pan. Use a sharp knife to cut a cross into the top of the batter. Put the pan on a middle shelf in the oven. Bake 45 to 50 minutes. The bread should be a deep, golden color. Let the pan cool on the counter for 10 minutes, then turn the bread out onto a rack.
Eat with lots of good Irish butter.