Long before I was old enough to be introduced to the mysteries of yeast and asexual reproduction, I learned to bake brown soda bread from my Grandma Hayes. She stood nearly five feet tall, always straight and proud, had red hair and freckles that she hated, and strong, cool arms that I loved. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Grandma also taught me about transformation: creating rich sustenance from the simplest of ingredients. Brown bread always reminds me of Grandma Hayes. A loaf of it requires whole wheat flour, sour milk, soda, a strong stirring arm, and not a whole lot more. A slice provides nourishment and comfort beyond compare.
Thirty-five years after my grandmother’s death, I visited Ireland’s County Cork, a land of rolling green hills and patchwork fields—much like the farmland in southern Iowa where my grandparents settled and I grew up—and was stunned to discover Grandma’s brown bread in nearly every pub and restaurant in Cork. Many of these establishments guarded their recipes for it fiercely; I know, because I asked for it at pubs like the Overdraught, the Armada, and the Spailpin Fanach. They all served brown bread, along with another dark substance I quickly learned to love—beer. And by beer, I mean Guinness and Beamish and Murphy’s.
I drink beer now. Dark beer. A pint at a time, and it needn’t even be cold. My favorite is Murphy’s, a lightweight among dark beers perhaps, but with quite a respectable bite. First I down the head—a dense, creamy layer that tickles my nose and situates itself staunchly on my upper lip, neither dripping nor evaporating like the foamy froth on American beer. Instead, it makes itself quite at home until I dare to wipe it away. Sometimes I do not bother. The brew itself has a quiet silkiness, artfully balanced by a sharp and toasty bite that fills the mouth quenches the soul.
I think I could live on Irish beer and brown bread, so I decided to search out the best. At the Guinness brewery in Dublin I learned how stout is made with barley, hops, water, and yeast. First, the barley is soaked in water, drained, and allowed to germinate. The resulting “malt” is roasted like coffee beans until it turns toasty brown; this gives the brew a rich, distinctive color and flavor. Hops are added for bitterness and aroma; then the concoction is mixed with pure, soft water and boiled. Next comes yeast, a rich source of protein and vitamins. This is where the asexual reproduction comes in. After it is added the brew is held in darkness for several weeks to ferment—the yeast transforming barley sugar into carbon dioxide (carbonation) and alcohol—and so the beer’s flavor can develop and mature.
That was an easy lesson. Local brown bread recipes proved harder to pin down. At the Bride View Bar, Ann Marie, a fresh-faced lass with curly blond hair and a crisp white linen blouse, pleasantly refused to give away her brown bread recipe. She did divulge—in a conspiratorial whisper—that she uses a secret ingredient, and that it is not the cornmeal I had suspected. Gaby, our gracious proprietress at the Bellevue Bed & Breakfast in Baile an Cuainin confided that she includes treacle (syrup) and black walnuts in hers.
The short, round hostess at Jim Edwards’ restaurant declined to give me her recipe, but cheerfully consented to explain the subtleties and secrets of other people’s brown bread: “Some add an egg, some use sugar, white or brown, or extra treacle for more sweetness; some prefer sour milk over buttermilk; and be certain to sift the soda!” Another source—who declined even to be named—mentioned that if you line the loaf pan with buttered parchment, it will ensure that the crust stays moist, and the bread will keep for four or five days, rather than the usual one or two.
After my diligent investigation of brown bread and beer, I thought I understood a good portion of Ireland’s rich, dark culinary heritage, but Gaby had one more surprise for me: a breakfast of Clonakilty black pudding. Although it isn’t really pudding, it is really black, and it is served in soft, sausage-like discs, each about an inch and a half in diameter and three-eighths of an inch thick, regularly studded with pale kernels of what turned out to be barley. The kernels had just enough bite that they each popped—a bit like caviar—under the tooth, after which the pudding was bulky enough to fill the mouth roundly, with a rich creaminess. The whole of it was perfectly seasoned, salty enough to compel another bite, and with just a tease of pepper, that came onto the tip of my tongue well after I had swallowed the rest, each morsel suggested that another mouthful might very well be in order. What ultimately seduced me was the generous texture—the gentle pop, a creamy chew, and only then the peppery suggestion. This could easily become my favorite food, except for the fact of what it is: Blood.
The black in black pudding is congealed pork blood, and I am nearly a vegetarian. So I nibbled at the stuff excruciatingly slowly, considering with each small bite—and in between bites, too—exactly what I was eating, and straining to taste an excuse to push the plate aside. The excuse never manifested; Clonakilty’s black pudding is, in fact, delicious beyond description—a perfect comfort food.
And comfort has long been needed in Ireland. After all, it is a country whose inhabitants have endured much hardship and deprivation. I have often wondered about the mystery of Irish authors—Swift, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, O’Brien, and Doyle, to name a few greats—how these people, who have been invaded and oppressed for centuries, manage to produce such lyric laments. How do they create pleasure and nourishment from such a bitter history? Perhaps the darkness of their subjugation allowed pain to ferment into music and longing to transmute itself into poetry. It is not so different from yeast, rising in darkness from single cell to form a rich source of sustenance.
Yeast was in Grandma Hayes’ larder, and Yeats was in her library. I learned both their lessons well: In “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” Yeats seems to reveal some of the mystery behind Ireland’s eloquent transmutations.
I only ask what way my journey lies
For He who made you bitter made you wise.
Wise indeed—in bread, in beer, in blood—an Irish trinity well worth toasting.