“Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do ‘to make a living.’ For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better.”
Though Micheal Pollan might, I think, have missed the news about this weekend’s Grandmothers’ Day events at Sandbrook House in Ballon, Co. Carlow, I suspect, reading the extract from his forthcoming book, that he would have approved.
The extract paints a dizzying picture of an economic world, spinning ever faster on an axis of relentless specialisation, a process which, at the same time, binds us in a tourniquet of learned helplessness and leaves us hopelessly disconnected from the origins of our food. He articulates the case for loosening those bonds, “making visible again many of the lines of connection” with our greater food system through the medium of cooking (or equally, one might infer, through practising the many other food skills with which our forebears were familiar).
And it is that reclaiming of lost skills and passing on of inherited wisdom that underlie both yesterday’s Slow Roots symposium and today’s Slow Food Ireland family event at Grandmothers’ Day. It seems appropriate, then, to introduce you to winter buttermilk, one old way with food that I have recently discovered, and one which is, to my mind, well worth remembering.
The thing about winter buttermilk is that it is not, in fact, buttermilk at all.
What’s more is that, despite what its name might lead you to believe, winter buttermilk has a dairy content of precisely zero, containing neither butter nor milk nor moo nor cow, but flour and water and – perhaps somewhat inevitably, given my well-documented obsession – spuds. It also (and this is the important thing) makes for a damn fine loaf of soda bread.
I first heard mention of it in an RTE radio documentary on Maura Laverty, the Irish cookery writer, novelist and broadcaster, whose classic book Full & Plenty, published in 1960, graced many’s an Irish kitchen, including my mother’s and now mine. In the documentary, Darina Allen recalls the triumphant descriptions of soda bread – that elemental Irish union of flour, buttermilk and bread soda – from an earlier 1940’s volume, Maura Laverty’s Cookery Book:
…we have given a four-leaved shamrock to the world. One leaf is W. B. Yeats, another is boiled potatoes in their jackets, another Barry Fitzgerald. The fourth is soda bread. And the greatest of these is soda bread. Spongy white soda bread with a floury, brown crossed crust…
Maura Laverty goes on to describe a myriad variations on the soda bread theme, and how people would have made do when buttermilk was not easy to come by, as would have been the case in winter, when cows were not milking. Some people, she said, used the water in which potatoes had been boiled to make their soda bread, but far better was the so-called winter buttermilk which they used in Cork and Meath. Why this may have been peculiar to Cork and Meath is not explained, but what is described is the method of its making and the lovely light loaf that resulted. Having followed Mrs. Laverty’s instructions, and not for the first time, I cannot help but agree.
Whereas winter buttermilk was invented, one presumes, through necessity, it turns out to be a boon for those who like a proper soda bread loaf but who, for one reason or another, are keen to avoid dairy.
The basic idea, according to Maura Laverty’s instructions, which I managed to locate over here, is this: make up a mixture of flour, water, raw and cooked potatoes. Allow this to ferment for a couple of days, after which time you can use the resulting liquid in place of buttermilk in your baking. When you have thus used some of the liquid, you can replenish with an equal amount of fresh water and let the mixture continue to ferment.
Maura Laverty suggests that an amount equivalent to double that specified below should be enough for a fortnight’s supply of buttermilk – this assumes, I expect, that you would be baking regularly during that time. As I wasn’t planning on making very large amounts of soda bread, the amount indicated below was enough for me. I used it to make several soda bread loaves and scones, as well as some (winter) buttermilk pancakes over a 2 week period, replenishing the jug once after the initial use. All were good – very good in fact – and I get the feeling that winter buttermilk is about to become a feature year ’round.
- Makes around 1 litre of winter buttermilk and – assuming you have some mashed potato already made – takes approx. 5 min to prep + 2 days for initial fermentation
- 50g plain flour
- 700ml cold water
- 125g plain mashed potato, cooled
- 150g raw potato, very finely grated
You’ll also need:
- A large jug, around 1l capacity – if you use a clear glass jug, you’ll get a better view of the fermenting activity.
- Mix the flour to a smooth paste using a little of the water and add to your jug.
- Add both the mashed potato and raw potato to the flour paste, along with the remaining water and mix together well. Make sure to leave a couple of inches to spare at the top of the jug – as the mixture ferments, it will become active and might overflow otherwise (as mine did after about 36 hours).
- Cover and leave in a warm place for about 2 days to ferment. You will see the mixture discolour initially from the oxidation of the raw potato. Over time, a crust will form and the contents will bubble and stratify. It will also start to develop a (not unpleasant) aroma of fermentation – a faintly sweet-seeming tang.
- After the initial 2 days, you can use the liquid in place of buttermilk. Maura Laverty’s instructions were to pour off the liquid – which will be a little viscous, due to the starch – and leave the sediment behind. However, as I had a lot of material clumping at the top of the jug, I simply mixed the contents of the jug together and used some of that, with good results.
- You can replenish the amount you have used by topping the jug up with the same amount of fresh water, mixing thoroughly and letting it continue to ferment. You can do this for up to 2 weeks.
White Soda Bread
This is the classic white soda bread recipe that Maura Laverty included in Maura Laverty’s Cookery Book and can be made with whatever kind of buttermilk you have. In truth, I had forgotten the loveliness of it, and the making of this loaf was a timely reminder.
With winter buttermilk, you may end up using a slightly larger volume to make this loaf than if you were using regular buttermilk, as the winter buttermilk may contain a certain amount of solid matter. In any case, as with any soda bread, don’t add all of the liquid at once and judge for yourself whether the mixture is too dry and needs a little more added.
- Makes 1 loaf & takes approx. 10 min to prep + 35 min to bake
- 450g plain flour
- 1 tsp bread soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- approx. 300-400ml buttermilk or winter buttermilk
You’ll also need:
- A baking tray to accommodate the loaf
- Preheat your oven to 220C.
- In a large bowl, sift together the flour, bread soda, salt and sugar.
- If using winter buttermilk, pour off the required amount of liquid from your jug. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add most of the liquid.
- Use one hand to mix the flour and buttermilk until it comes together as a soft dough. If it seems very dry, add more buttermilk.
- Turn out onto a floured surface, shape the dough into a round about 2-3 cm high and place onto a floured baking tray. Cut a deep cross into the dough, from right to left and top to bottom and bake for about 35 to 45 minutes, until risen and well browned. The base of the loaf should have a hollow sound when tapped.
- Allow to cool on a wire tray. If you don’t want a very hard crust, wrap the soda bread in a tea towel while it is cooling. This is best eaten fresh with some good Irish butter, plain and simple and very good.
- You can easily make individual scones by cutting the dough into around 8 even-sized pieces, and baking instead for about 15-20 minutes, until browned and risen.