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Hilde Lee: Soda bread offers a taste of Irish history

What do you have planned for this coming Tuesday, which is St. Patrick’s Day? It is an Irish holiday that became part of America with the immigration of the Irish in the 1800s. Primarily associated with this holiday are the color green, soda bread, Boxty-on-the-Pan and the history of St. Patrick.

Many of us like the color green in our wardrobes and our home décor. Soda bread, although traditional in Irish cuisine, is made similarly to most breads (recipe follows). But what do we know about Boxty-on-the-Pan, and St. Patrick?

Boxty-on-the-Pan is similar to potato pancakes.

As for St. Patrick, although there are many legends about St. Patrick, most are not true. However, he is very much revered in Irish history and folklore. Historians tell us that St. Patrick was born in England near the end of the fourth century to wealthy parents. He is believed to have died on March 17 around 460 A.D. There is no evidence that St. Patrick came from a religious family, but the family probably turned to religion as a tax incentive.

When Patrick was 16, he was taken prisoner by a group of Irish people who were attacking his family’s estate. They took him to Ireland, where he was a prisoner for six years. Then Patrick escaped.

In a dream, a voice, presumably that of God, told Patrick to leave Ireland. Back in England, he had another vision, which told him to go back to Ireland as a missionary. Thus, he began religious training, and, after 15 years, was ordained as a priest. Patrick was sent back to Ireland to minister to the few Christians living there and to convert the Irish to Catholicism.

At the time, most of the Irish practiced a nature-based pagan religion. Patrick tried to combine some of the pagan symbols with Christian ones. He superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross, creating what is now called the Celtic cross.

Many of the legends about St. Patrick are not true; others have become ritual. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, as there were no snakes there in the first place.

Even though St. Patrick’s Day falls in the middle of Lent, when no alcohol should be consumed, it is traditional to have a shot or two of whiskey on that day.

It seems that St. Patrick was served a shot of whiskey at an inn. The glass was not quite full. He told the innkeeper that there was a monstrous devil in his basement who fed on the dishonesty of the innkeeper’s pouring of drinks. In order to rid himself of the devil, the innkeeper must change his ways.

When St. Patrick returned later, the innkeeper generously filled all the glasses. The devil had become emaciated. St. Patrick proclaimed that everyone should have some “hard stuff” on his feast day. It is customary to float a shamrock leaf in the shot glass of whiskey.

St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated in America in Boston in 1737. It is still a religious holiday in Ireland and a festive one in the U.S.

Two foods that are traditionally associated with St. Patrick’s Day are Irish soda bread and corned beef and cabbage.

Up until the mid-1800s, housewives in rural Ireland did not bake bread with yeast, as there was none available. Also, there were few, if any, bakeries. All baking was done in the home. Baking supplies were limited, and time, as a result of extensive farm work, was at a premium.

Thus, the use of baking soda as a leavening agent was quick and effective. It produced a much more consistent loaf of bread than yeast. Soda bread became a staple of the Irish diet until commercial bread production began in the late 1800s. This bread is still popular with the Irish.

Soda bread usually contains flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. On the farms, the buttermilk was leftover from butter making, and the bread was usually served with freshly churned butter.

Today soda bread often contains sugar, butter, raisins, or caraway seeds for flavoring. Soda bread is heartier than most yeast breads and goes best with soups, stews, and meat dishes. In this country it is often served with corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.

In Ireland, Corned Beef and Cabbage was traditionally served on Easter Sunday in the wealthy homes. As there was no refrigeration at the time, beef, the more expensive meat, was salted or brined during the winter to preserve it. It was then eaten after the long, meatless Lenten period.

Today, already corned beef is available in most of our super markets. I remember when my mother would buy a hunk of beef and make her own pickle mixture of salt and saltpeter and a bay leaf. She let the beef “pickle” for 5 to 6 days and then gently boil it for 2 to 4 hours, adding potatoes, a carrot or two and cabbage wedges in the last 30 minutes.

Soda Bread

» 2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

» 1½ teaspoons baking powder

» ¾ teaspoon salt

» ¼ teaspoon baking soda

» 1 cup buttermilk

Mix the dry ingredients. Add the buttermilk and stir to make a soft dough. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured board and knead for about 1 minute. Shape the dough into a round loaf, about 8 inches in diameter.

Put the dough into a greased round pan or on a round cookie sheet. With a sharp knife, cut a cross on the top. Bake the bread in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes. Bread is done if it sounds hollow when tapped with the knuckles. Cool on its side before cutting. For a soft crust, wrap the loaf in a tea towel and stand it on its side to cool.

So, have some corned beef and cabbage and don’t forget the soda bread and the shot of whiskey to celebrate the day.

I want to thank all of my readers who have so kindly written me in the past weeks. I even heard from someone in California and in Nova Scotia, Linda Graham, who invited me to stay at her bed and breakfast in Digby. Who knows? Since I love to travel and would love to go back for Digby scallops, I may do that this summer.

My column is available through The Daily Progress and Berkshire Hathaway all over this country and Nova Scotia, I recently found out.


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