It seems an unlikely place to start a revolution: a tiny island off the coast of far west Cork, inhabited by less than 30 people and without even pub to call its own. And yet Heir Island is now home to the Firehouse Bakery and Bread School, headquarters of Patrick Ryan’s self-styled Bread Revolution, one which you can read all about in his book of the same name, or, better still, which you can discover for yourself by making the trip to West Cork and taking one of Patrick’s bread-making courses. Lucky me, then, to be invited to do exactly that last weekend, and what a joy it was.
As we were sitting in our island lodgings, anticipating the day of baking ahead, Patrick gestured towards the mainland: “If this place were over there, it wouldn’t make half as good a story,” he said, and he was right of course. There is something that appeals to our escapist selves about setting up shop on a tiny island, where your visits are dictated, among other things, by the schedule of the little ferry boat that takes you for the five minute ride across to the island while your worries, albeit temporarily, get left behind. There is also much to be said for a lesson in bread that can expand to include a perfect afternoon of sailing and mackerel fishing, followed by pizzas cooked in the bread school’s outdoor wood-fired oven.
Patrick and his partner, Laura Moore, established The Firehouse Bakery and Bread School on Heir Island just four or so months ago. The island is home to Laura’s parents, and, having spent a number of years living and working in Bath, this was the home that Laura wanted to return to. For Laois-born Patrick, having established and spent four years as head baker at Bath’s Thoughtful Bread Company, the island has become his new base for spreading the word about real bread, where the only things added to flour, water, salt and yeast are time and care. People have been getting all floured up at Patrick’s intimate, one day hands-on bread baking courses right throughout the summer and they have bookings up until the end of October. The revolution, it seems, has already begun.
And how do you train these small groups of would-be revolutionaries when they get to the island? You hand them an apron and get them to work with sourdough, that most elemental of breads, leavened with naturally occurring yeasts and, here, baked beautifully in a wood-fired oven, producing the very antithesis of the modern, mass-produced factory loaf.
You have them make, between them, a plethora of yeasted breads: granary loaf, baguettes, focaccia, pizza dough, cinnamon maple swirls and, yes, potato bread (of which – surprise, surprise – there is more below). While these breads rise, you introduce them to quickly-made soda bread variants, creating a whole range of sweet and savoury scones and loaves, and – while not out making their own wood-fired pizzas – have them, for good measure, put together an assortment of desserts and cakery too.
And finally, you send them home with as many freshly-baked goods and as much inspiration as they can carry but, most importantly of all, they will be toting a precious loaf of their own carefully-nurtured sourdough. It will, as Patrick says, be the best loaf that they, or I, will ever eat.
Potato and Rosemary Flowerpot Bread
These loaves of yeasted potato bread were just one of the many we made while on Heir Island. Despite the fact that a small amount of added potato makes for a wonderfully soft and light crumb, there’s not much of a yeasted potato bread tradition here, probably because Irish bread-making has more usually revolved around soda bread, which is more suited to the softer flour of native Irish wheat.
This recipe is a little different to the yeasted potato bread I’ve made before, which involved sieving the cooked potato quite finely before adding to the flour. Here the cooked potato is just chopped roughly into small chunks – the process of kneading helps to break it up further.
It was also my first time to use fresh yeast, which worked beautifully but can be hard to come by (though you can always try asking for some in a reputable bakery). Though it may not work quite as quickly, you can substitute active dry yeast (around 40% of the amount of fresh yeast is needed) dissolved in lukewarm water or follow packet instructions for instant yeast, which doesn’t need to be dissolved first.
It also does to remember here, as always, that recipes are guidelines and a lot of bread making is about technique (which is why attending a course like the one at the Firehouse Bread School is such a valuable, as well as enjoyable, experience). It’s also, of course, about practice.
Here, for example, the dough was stickier than I would have been used to and rather than add flour to make it drier, I discovered that (a) a dough scraper is a very useful implement for gathering up sticky dough and (b) keeping your hands wet helps greatly with handling. Patrick noted that the potatoes, in particular, contribute to the wetness of this dough in the early stages of kneading, but it does all come together – you just have to, eh, stick with it, as it were.
- 500g strong white flour
- 10g fine-grained salt
- 200g cooked potato, peeled and roughly chopped
- 0.5 bulb garlic (around 4-5 cloves), roasted
- 4 sprigs rosemary, needles picked and finely chopped
- 10g fresh yeast
- 265g lukewarm water
- 15g olive oil
- handful of ice cubes
You’ll also need:
- If you want to make flowerpot bread you will, of course, be needing flowerpots – the clay type, obviously, ones that are around 15cm diameter should do the trick – but if you don’t have those, you can use a couple of baking tins, shape as freestanding loaves or form into smaller bread rolls.
- Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl and mix in the potato, garlic and rosemary.
- Crumble the fresh yeast into the water so that it dissolves. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the yeasted water to the flour and pour in the olive oil. Bring together as a dough using your hands or a spatula.
- Turn the dough onto a clean surface and knead for 10 minutes (or more) until you can see the windowpane effect (where a small piece of dough is held up and pinched out until parts of it are thin enough to see light shining through without the dough tearing). Initially this dough may feel a little firm but as you work the potato into the dough, it will get wetter. If it still feels a little tight, incorporate a little extra water.
- Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with a damp tea-towel and leave to prove for around 60 minutes or until doubled in size.
- Take the dough out and knock it back, then allow it to rest for about 5 minutes. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Shape as desired or place into two seasoned, greased and lined clay flowerpots. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to prove again for around 60 minutes or until doubled in size.
- Preheat your oven to 220C. Place a roasting tray in the base of the oven. When ready to bake, place the loaves in the oven and add the ice cubes to the roasting tray to release a blast of steam. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200C and bake for a further 15-20 minutes until golden and each base makes a hollow sound when tapped.
- You can omit the garlic and rosemary to make a more versatile bread, or change the flavouring by adding other herbs – thyme or chives perhaps – along with a little parmesan or whatever else takes your fancy.
- Makes 2 large loaves