Brown Soda Bread

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Soda bread is like a large savoury scone, and as with scones, the raising agent is sodium bicarbonate, usually in reaction with buttermilk or tartaric acid. The dough for this popular Irish bread contains a mixture of brown and white flours and the proportions are variable. Less brown flour makes a lighter, easier loaf. More brown flour brings more flavour and complexity. In the manner of a professional politician, I have made a decent compromise. It’s traditional – in Ireland anyway – to make a round loaf and mark it into quarters, known as farls, with a sharp knife.

Ingredients

  • 350g (12oz) wholemeal flour (3 cups stoneground whole wheat flour)
  • 100g ( oz) plain white flour (¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour), plus extra for dusting
  • 60g (oz) oatmeal (½ cup briefly processed steel-cut oats)
  • 2 level teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 level teaspoon salt
  • 15g (½oz/1 tablespoon) softened butter
  • 350ml (12fl oz/ cups) buttermilk, or skimmed milk mixed with ½ teaspoon cream of tartar

Method

Heat the oven to 200°C (400°F/Gas 6). In a large bowl, mix together the wholemeal and white flours, oatmeal, bicarbonate of soda and salt. In a jug, combine the soft butter and milk.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid, then incorporate the flour bit by bit into the soft dough that forms in the middle.

Knead lightly to make sure everything is well mixed, then shape the dough into a round, flattish loaf. Place on a baking sheet, mark the loaf with a cross and sprinkle it with some extra flour.

Bake for 35–40 minutes. Wrap the loaf loosely with a cloth as it cools if you want a softer crust.

The Merchant House was – and is – a large Jacobean town house backing onto the Corve, the smaller of the town’s two rivers. In 1994 a lady and her cat lived in it but wished to sell up and move someplace smaller. The asking price was fair. The ground floor looked more like a restaurant than it does now, but the estate agents were horrified at my casual remark about converting the place and advised their client to sell to another would-be purchaser. They could see problems ahead that might delay their commission, but there wouldn’t be any from us – we had fallen for the house and would have as happily just lived in it as work from it, provided I could find some gainful occupation nearby.

My own position was simple. No money, a job as head chef at the estimable Gidleigh Park in Devon which was due to end in a few months, and an unsaleable modern house in a small Dartmoor village near the hotel. My bank account showed a small overdraft and there were no savings to draw on.
A chat with the bank manager produced a plan of action and we were able to buy The Merchant House on the strength of past earnings rather than any optimism of future profits. We took a bridging loan on the Devon property – it took two years to sell – and agreed a personal overdraft and loans which gave us £30,000 to pay for conversions to make the house suitable for use as a restaurant. Easy. The problem, in fact, is not in obtaining the cash for such ventures, but repaying it at some point, for the more you borrow, the shorter time there must be between opening the restaurant and its success. We moved in on Bastille day. All we needed was planning permission.
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