Despite the popularity of Saint Patrick's Day around the world, few of us really know the origins of this Irish holiday. For Americans, March 17th seems to be a day that commemorates leprechauns, shamrocks, heavy drinking and creative uses of green dye (did you know the Chicago River is dyed green each year for the celebration?!). But what does all this folderol have anything to do with Saint Patrick himself? Very little.
In fact, Patrick was likely not his name and sources say that he was born Maewyn Succat, the son of an Italian father and a Scots mother. He was born in Roman Britain around 400 AD and was kidnapped by Irish slave traders when he was fifteen and brought to the island to work as a shepherd. After 6 years, he managed to escape back to Britain and became a priest and then a bishop. After having a vision of the Irish people begging him to return, he went back around 432 and started converting thousands of pantheistic Celts to Christianity and founded numerous churches. He died in 480 of natural causes although had survived an attempted assassination by poisoned cheese.
The more typical foods eaten on Saint Patrick's Day, corned beef and cabbage and such, also seem to have no relevance to Saint Patrick. Far from beef, he likely preferred lobster. He also carried around with him a plentiful supply of garlic throughout his travels in Ireland. However, foods eaten on March 17th such as corned beef and Irish stew do reflect contemporary Irish food traditions. One such staple is Irish soda bread, a yeast-less bread leavened with baking soda.
One of the earliest breads in Ireland was likely made of crushed grains and water. All kinds of grains were used to make this early “brown bread” from rye to buckwheat to barley. The popularity of white store-bought bread in the 19th century turned brown bread into a sign of poverty, but nowadays, this kind of bread is in favor again due to its authenticity and nutritional value. This bread is incredibly easy to make and has a hearty rich flavor from the whole wheat and buttermilk. I've topped mine here with some butter and smoked salmon but this versatile bread can accompany pretty much anything.
– 4 cups of wheat flour, preferably Irish style
– 1 cup of white flour, preferably Irish style (if you cannot find Irish style flour which is softer than American wheat, you can substitute with pastry flour. Be sure to buy unbleached, stone-ground and organic if possible)
– 1/2 cup of Irish steel-cut oats or oat bran
– 1 tsp baking soda
– 1 tsp of kosher salt
– 2-3 cups of cold buttermilk
– unsalted butter for greasing
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and grease a baking sheet with the butter.
Sift the two flours into a large bowl and add the oats, baking soda and salt. Make a well in the middle of the mixture and gradually pour in 2 cups of buttermilk, slowly stirring with a wooden spoon towards the outer edge of the bowl. This recipe is flexible to buttermilk amounts so continue to add more until the consistency is correct. The dough shouldn't be wet (just slightly tacky) and there should be no raw flour. I used about 2 1/4 cups of buttermilk. Be careful not to over mix.
Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and with floured hands, form the dough into a round disk about 3 inches thick. Place onto the greased baking sheet and score a cross on the top with a knife.
Bake for about 45-60 minutes until it is nicely browned and the bottom sounds hallow when tapped. It's better to slightly overbake the bread than underbake it because if you cut into your bread and it is still raw on the inside, it is hard to salvage. Enjoy with some butter or smoked fish!
(Recipe from The Country Cooking of Ireland)