Welcome back to The Bite, Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we’ll check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.
“If you had the luck of the Irish,
You’d be sorry and wish you were dead.
If you had the luck of the Irish,
You’d wish you were English instead.” – John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Not exactly what you were thinking of for a pre-Saint Patrick’s day post about Irish food, now is it? Well, let’s remember that England still occupies six of the 32 counties of Ireland and that the occupation of Ireland was particularly brutal throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Until the middle of the 20th century, the vast majority of Irish agriculture was exported to their English overlords, leaving relatively little for the Irish people.
So what did the Irish do? They made the best of it and adapted foods and cooking traditions to create new foodstuffs unique to the Emerald Isle. Irish Soda Bread is just one example and one of its most grand.
But just as bagpipes weren’t invented by the Scots, Soda Bread wasn’t invented by the Irish. The earliest reference to using soda ash in baking bread seems to be credited to American Indians using it to leaven their bread. How it got to the Irish and Scots, I have no idea.
Pearl Ash was used prior to 1800 to make cakes by combining it with an acidic ingredient in the dough. Just as the Scots have made the bagpipe their instrument, the Irish made Soda Bread theirs. Not by choice, but by a state of poverty that made it the easiest bread to put on the table.
So what makes Irish soda bread so special? Well, in 1836, The Newry Telegraph (a Northern Ireland newspaper) published the following”
There is no bread to be had equal to it for invigorating the body, promoting digestion, strengthening the stomach, and improving the state of the bowels.
According to Slashfood:
The original soda breads contained nothing more than flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. The buttermilk was leftover from the butter making process and the bread was almost always served with freshly churned butter.
Today, the breads often contain additional ingredients, like sugar, butter, currants or caraway seeds to enhance the flavor of the bread. Soda bread is heartier than most yeast breads and pairs very well with soups, stews and meat dishes. It also makes outstanding toast.
I don’t know about all that, but I do know that T & D Bakery’s Irish Soda Bread ($4.75 a loaf) sure is tasty. Their light and fluffy bread is studded with raisins and caraway seeds and topped with a light coating of powdered sugar. This is the Irish soda bread most Irish-Americans grew up with, and it should find a place on your table this St. Patrick’s Day.
So on this grandest of days, let me leave you with a traditional Irish blessing:
May your glass be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven
half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.
Just be sure to wipe the powdered sugar from your mouth before you reach the pearly gates!
T & D Bakery, 2307 Avenue U, (718)769-2267.