If you have been following my blog recently, you will know that I under took a bread making course at Arbutus Bread Company in Cork last month. It was such a fun experience, but as I’m living in Dublin, I had to commute home to Cork once a week to do the course and get back up to Dublin at the crack of dawn the following morning to get back to Dublin for work. It was a bit mad in retrospect, but we all do mad things to follow our passions!
Arbutus Breads was set up by Declan Ryan, the first Michelen star chef in Ireland who became famous with Arbutus Lodge. I can’t remember being there unfortunately despite the fact that it was a stones throw away from the first house my family lived in, as Declan retired and sold Arbutus many years ago when I was still a child, but my parents have great memories of the place. When Declan retired, he set up Arbutus breads, initially as a hobby, but it soon grew into a well established artisan bakery supplying Cork’s best markets, delis and shops. The bakery has a bit of a cult following at this point, as it really is the best bakery in the country.
As the course in Arbutus drew to an end, Declan offered us all the opportunity to witness how a bakery operates on a busy night, to which I of course jumped at! Their busiest night is Friday night, to meet the weekend demand on Saturdays. I was told to arrive at midnight and I would work through the night until all loaves were pulled from the ovens. Having been personally used to taking a full weekend afternoon to make one loaf of bread, I was intrigued to see how an artisan bakery committed to the traditional methods of bread making handles such large orders of almost 40 different types of bread in the space of 8 short hours.
I arrived 20 minutes early (I am an eager beaver), and though very excited, I wasn’t sure if I would be getting stuck in or just weighing flour and making tea. Darragh (Declan’s son, and a great baker at Arbutus) arrived and got me to work straight away, and thankfully I was straight away getting elbow deep in flour. I started off decorating some white yeast breads with creme fraiche, basil, tomatoes and herbs which was quite fun and strangely therapeutic. Then I got stuck into making a type of light brioche infused with saffron and filled with almond paste, this was probably my favourite one to help prepare as I love sweet things and it looked so pretty that it was quite enjoyable to make. I even got to make my own massive custard brioche to take home with me! Ivers ,who is a baker at Arbutus, specialises in all the Rye breads, and thankfully took me through each stage of the process of making his rye breads. My favourite is his Latvian Rye which is a sweet and sour rye with caraway seeds, which give it the most beautiful tangy flavour. He also let me get stuck into kneading the doughs and showed me some cool and unusual ways of shaping them. I was really impressed with how generous the bakers were with their time for me, as I’m sure showing me how to do things was slowing them down. I also wondered were they worried that I would be making more “rustic” looking loaves than they were used to, however, they were really encouraging and taught me so much.
Sukru, the baker who taught me to make his Turkish Pide bread the week before let me watch him make his fragrant breads. He was also in charge of making the Brown Soda breads, and made over 60 during the night! I didn’t help out much with the pastries, as the dough needs to be made 18 hours in advance, but I happily egg washed them and watched them rise into sweet, buttery, crusty beauties!
The main thing that struck me about the place was the time that is taken to create each loaf. I always support local and artisan food companies wherever possible and justify the slightly increased cost by the superior taste and quality, and the fact that I am supporting Irish jobs. However, one thing I have always taken for granted is the time that these artisans take to craft their food. I mean, despite thousands of loaves being made that night, each was crafted by hand. As I was delicately filling the saffron brioche dough with almond paste and plaited them into pretty little circles, I wondered would the person who bought and ate the loaf the next day appreciate that I had been up at 5am making it? Would it cross their mind that a passionate food groupie like myself had been up at 6am the previous day for a run, worked a full day, got a 3 hour bus to Cork to get to the bakery, and worked through the night to learn and help create these amazing loaves all for the love of food? They probably enjoyed every last crumb as I did the next morning when I took a loaf home, however the bakers who work through the night as we sleep soundly in our beds often get forgotton. The thing that struck me about my night in Arbutus is the time and care that goes into the production of artisan food, and I’m going to endeavour to remember that each time I pour some Flynn’s kitchen basil oil on my bread, or Llewellyn Apple Syrup on my porridge, Gubbeen chorizo on my pasta and certainly each time I take a bite of Arbutus Bread.
History of Bread Making in Ireland:
In Ireland we don’t have a history of artisan yeast or levain breads, being a nation of devoted soda bread eaters (not that I’m knocking my beloved soda breads). Apparently the reason behind this is actually scientific. Our breads are low in protein and gluten (damn the Irish weather) and so it doesn’t rise with yeast, which is why we traditionally relied on raising our breads with bread soda and buttermilk. The French and Italians have very fine flours which make the most beautiful yeast breads, and that is why boulangeries are a part of the French and Italian cultures that are missing in Ireland. However, with delicious sodas and limited travel across Europe many generations ago, most people didn’t know what they were missing, and so no-one really minded.
Atrisan bakers will cite the invention of the Chorleywood process of bread making as the demise of quality bread making and standards. This process was invented during World War 2 in an attempt to cheaply and quickly feed those who were affected by food shortages. Unlike traditional breads that take hours to prove and use only water, flour and maybe yeast, these loaves were pumped with fat, sugar and other nasties that only took 5 minutes to prove. Apparently it is because of this process of bread making that we see an increase in the amount of intolerances to bread. When I asked Declan why he decided to start up a bakery after retiring from Arbutus Lodge, he replied “the sliced pan”! He was referring to the unhealthy bread we had become accustomed to as a nation, but alas, Declan is redeeming our lack of bread making notoriety as a nation one loaf at a time!