On March 17th, we celebrate the life and teachings of St. Patrick of Ireland. St. Patrick brought the Gospel to the Emerald Isle and used the 3 leaves of the indigenous shamrock to tell people about the Holy Trinity. And then, there's the snake thing. If you hate snakes as much as I do, that ranks pretty high. Ireland is the land of my ancestors. I've also got French, German and English that cut through the Green Genes, but on St. Patrick's Day, I'm 100% Gaelic.
In the last 20 years or so, the food of Ireland has become famous for its purity, sustainability and adherence to traditional farming and cooking techniques. The waters around the island are deep and clean; yielding bright, flavorful seafood that fuels a thriving waterfront industry. The countryside is full of wild game and populations are protected and monitored to ensure healthy numbers every year. Most farms are run thoughtfully; many operated on organic and bio-diversified principles.
Ireland is home to a special breed of beef cattle, known as the Irish Moiled. The breed dates back to the 7th century and is prized for it's ability to produce good flavored beef in poor conditions. There are more than 1.1 million dairy cows in Ireland who produce beautiful cream, butter and cheese that are valued around the world. In 2012, Irish dairy cows produced 1.5 billion gallons of top-quality milk. Cows and beef cattle are not the only incredible meat products. There are more sheep than people in most parts of Ireland. In 2012, Irish lamb exports totaled 284 million dollars, with France importing nearly half of the entire year's production.
Irish produce farms overflow with root vegetables, cabbages, beans, lettuces, and of course the ubiquitous Irish potato. A famous traditional Irish dish is called Colcannon, which is simply buttered mashed potatoes with cooked, shredded cabbage mixed in. Simple, nutritious and delicious. Traditional meals tend to be basic, celebrating the unique flavor of the produce and meat that is being served. Modern cooks and chefs seek out the many small growers and fishermen for stunning seasonal harvests. Ireland is about the size of Indiana, so no food product has to travel very far to get to market. In fact, Ireland imports only a very small amount of food. Most of it is home grown!
It wasn't always like this in the Emerald Isle. From 1845-1852, a fungus which came to be known as Potato Blight began attacking the potato crop. It cut a catastrophic swath through the entire island and devastated the harvest for years. Before it ran its course, one million people had died and countless others had immigrated. Those that survived this black time in Ireland's history were happy to cook whatever they could find. Boiled root vegetables and cabbage were the order of the day. Potatoes were still prized. To this day, the potato is still the King of Ireland.
To celebrate the Feast of Saint Patrick, people all over the world prepare a humble meal: corn beef, cabbage, potatoes and soda bread. Most of this is boiled, but the soda bread is baked in a cast iron dutch oven called a Bastible, that was nestled into the coals of a fire to bake. Most rural Irish folk did not have access to an oven, so this was the way they baked their bread. Soda bread is more of a large biscuit; leavened with baking soda and/or powder. A cross is pressed into the top of the dough to ask for blessings and intercessions from the Saint.
To start, build a fire. (Not many of today's recipes start with that instruction!) Once the fire has died down to coals, coat the bottom of your cast iron dutch oven with butter and drop the dough in, press the cross in the top and cover. Pour hot coals on the top of the dutch oven and allow to bake for roughly 1 hour or until the resulting bread has a hollow sound when thumped.
Irish Soda Bread
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tbsp white vinegar
5 cups AP flour
3 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt
Pour the vinegar into the milk and allow the milk to curdle. You can also use 2 1/2 cups of whole buttermilk.
Mix the flour, soda and salt. Add the milk and stir. Turn this mixture out onto your benchtop. Knead for about 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth.
Some bakers make soda bread with raisins and carroway seeds. Some has only raisins or carroway. Some has none. The point is to make this bread and think about where our food comes from. Where our feasts come from- the farmer and the land. Blessed by St. Patrick and stewarded by descending generations, eaten with gratitude and love. Slainte!