Looking at other people’s bread creations for St. Patrick’s day produced an abundance of green tinged loaves and rolls, some of which looked tasty (pistachio bread definitely) and some simply barmy. We were trying to get inspiration for a St. Patrick’s weekend bake, when Ruby asked the question “what bread would St. Patrick have eaten on St. Patrick’s day?” Good question Ruby. Ignoring the fact that there was no St. Patrick’s day when the man himself was around, we decided to bake an authentic loaf from the time of the early monks. But there was a distinct lack of early Irish bread recipes in cyberspace….did they even eat bread, or just bowls of watery gruel? So while researching another job, I diverted a little time to more scholarly articles on early breads. Turns out bread was definitely on the monks menu, but it seems that baking, like everything in Ireland, was fraught with politics and social jostling that dictated what kind of bread you made and ate. There were flatbreads and leavened breads, barley breads, oat breads, rye breads, wheat breads, maslin (mixed grain) breads, women’s bread and men’s bread, festival breads and penitent breads.
Now strictly speaking, it being the middle of Lent, St. Patrick would have eaten a penitent loaf. But from what we could glean, these were heavy, grey flatbread loaves made from barley, oats and water, meant to sustain rather than excite the palate. So we thought we’d make two different loaves – St. Patrick’s Penitent Loaf, and a secular Bairgen Banfuine, or woman’s bread, a maslin leavened loaf that included wheat (so much more palatable). And we decided to indulge in a little experimental archaeology too, and prepare and bake them in true early medieval style. Flatbreads were cooked on a griddle on the open fire, and although there were no built-up ovens in that time, raised loaves could be cooked on a griddle covered by an upturned pot, or in the equivalent of a modern Dutch Oven – a clay pot with a close-fitting lid, surrounded by embers from the open fire.
There’s a distinct lack of information on the exact ingredients in early medieval bread, let alone the quantities and ratios, so our recipes and methods were cobbled together from an article written by the Irish culinary historian, food writer and broadcaster Regina Sexton. Barley flour seemed to be the staple ingredient in a lot of breads, but Ruby and I could not get a bag of it in Dublin for love nor money. So in keeping with our authenticity, we ground our own! Just enough for our two loaves. We’re on a promise from the Dublin Co-op that they’ll source some for us next time (thanks Amy!).
St. Patrick’s Penitent Loaf.
200g barley flour
200g oat flour
Combine the barley and oat flour in a bowl. Add the water and mix to a pasty dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and shape into a circular flat loaf or four smaller loaves. Sprinkle with oat or barley flour. Heat an oiled flat griddle pan over an open flame (or an electric ring, your choice). Cook on a high heat until the outside is browned. Leave to cool and for the interior to cook.
Bairgen Banfuine (Women’s maslin bread)
100g barley flour
100g oat flour
100g rye flour
100g wholewheat flour
10g yeast (or barm yeast if you can get it)
Combine all the flours in a bowl. Add the yeast, buttermilk and water and combine to create a claggy dough. Tip out onto a floured surface and knead vigorously for 5-6 minutes. Return to the clean, oiled bowl and leave to prove for about 2 hours (or longer if it’s struggling). Tip out and form a round domed loaf on a flat griddle pan covered by an inverted ceramic pot, or in a dutch oven. Place in the centre of the fire, and heap the hot embers around the pot. This is where any baking advice from us ends…….
Obviously we had no control over the temperature of the fire, and subsequently, our makeshift oven, so our timing for the maslin bread was completely made up. We left ours for 30 minutes. When I tried to take it out, the griddle pan was a fiery orange colour, and my oven gloves were melting! Needless to say, this did not bode well for the loaf. In hindsight, we should have left the griddle and pot on the fire for about 10 minutes, then taken it off and let it cook under its own heat. That said, once we chipped off the outer charcoal shell, there was some decent tasting (if a little smoky) bread in the middle. The flatbreads were more successful from a baking point of view, though they were largely lacking in any kind of flavour and were distinctly gritty.
Final impressions? Both breads were definitely edible, and while we wouldn’t want to eat them every day (for every meal), they were certainly palatable enough when piled high with our authentic(ish) early christian condiments (one historical source recounts that St. Colman buttered his Lenten loaf on both sides. I don’t blame him). On the whole the process was hilarious, if a little tedious in sections (hand-grinding barley grain until someone more quick-witted pointed out the spice-mill), and the results were….hmm, interesting. Still, we’ll definitely give this one another go.