The next instalment in our culinary cruise through literature takes us to the north of Ireland and the work of the writer Michael McLaverty. Born in 1904, McLaverty is one of Belfast’s most accomplished proponents of the short story and novel form. His first and best known novel, Call my Brother Back (1939) is an understated, poignant elegy to rural life. Set during the inter-war period, the narrative relates historical details regarding high unemployment, low living standards, and sectarian violence by focussing on one close-knit family: the MacNeills. McLaverty traces the progression of the MacNeill family from the relative happiness of life on the remote Rathlin Island during the First World War to their experience of the Troubles in 1920s Belfast.
Food is central to the way in which McLaverty communicates the struggles of the average working-class family of the 1920s. When the MacNeills are able to afford meat (generally liver!), it is reserved for the father and the three sons who go out to work. The unexpected appearance of a lettuce on the kitchen table one day causes the boys to yell in delight – something few twenty-first century teenagers would do when faced with a salad. Oranges, lemonade and sweets are an extra special treat, as is the plum pudding eaten at Christmas.
Yet these are all exceptions. Day in and day out, the family eat bread. On Rathlin Island, visits to the mainland are rare and so the family presumably made their oatcakes, soda farls and potato bread in the traditional way by using a griddle suspended over the fire. The situation changes completely when the family moves to Belfast. This re-location takes place because Alec, the eldest son, has been offered a job in a flour mill and bakery. Bread quickly becomes the family’s financial, as well as culinary, staple.
In Our Daily Bread: A Look at Ulster Bakeries, the baker and local historian James Davidson records the history of bread-making in the province’s capital city. One of the biggest companies – the Ormeau Bakery – revolutionised the bread-making industry in several ways. Most importantly for this blog post, they were the first to use a travelling hot plate (a kind of slowly-moving metal tray) to make potato and soda farls in an industrial context. During the inter-war period, Davidson explains, bread and other baked goods were delivered to most households from these commercial bakeries. The griddle – which you can see in use at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum – was going out of fashion in the city and families such as the MacNeills began to buy bread.
This shift in consumption patterns reflects the central theme of McLaverty’s novel: the life of a normal family at a significant point of cultural transition. As the MacNeills move from a rural farm to an equally harsh urban world, they adapt to the new modes of existence which result, in part, fromnew technologies. The freedom of Rathlin Island – not a pastoral idyll, but definitely McLaverty’s favoured place – is replaced by the regimen and anxieties of the unfamiliar, industrial city.
Towards the end of the novel Colm lists the various types of bread produced by the bakery:
Once inside the office he would get ready the long order-sheets, neatly write the bread-servers’ names on them, and calculate in pounds, shillings and pence the amount of bread issued:
2lb Open Pan
2lb Wheaten Pan
2lb Lodger Loaves
A long list of names of pastry, scones, and fancy loaves following and in his slack periods he often amused himself by combining the initial letters into Rathlin place-names.
A wealth of local history is packed into this list: the poverty which gave rise to the use of poor quality flour in soda bread; the hint of luxuriousness in the use of currants; and the preference for white over wholemeal flour during the interwar period. Class differences are subtly conveyed in the cataloguing of breads which are well beyond the MacNeills’ means. As the list of breads morphs into a list of place-names, Colm embeds his own personal history into modern, industrial Belfast. He tries to adapt, without forgetting his heritage. The beauty of McLaverty’s writing lies in the way in which he too seeks to record this past for posterity. With meticulous attention he recreates a world that, in 1939, was disappearing into the shadow of a technologically advanced world war.
At the end of the novel, two of the children leave Belfast for better employment prospects in England. As every emigrant from the Belfast area knows, it is difficult to find decent Northern Irish breads elsewhere. A trip to the local bakery for a wheaten loaf is often confounded by the fact that there are few independent, good quality shops these days (this is now probably true of my home town too!). And if you do find that coveted soda farl or potato bread, it is hygienically packed in a plastic wrapper and sold at extravagantly high prices – ironic, given that these breads were originally baked by the poor using cheap ingredients. It was partly because of such experiences that I began to bake my own bread. And I found that it is surprisingly easy to do. The recipes below are very basic and can be adapted depending on the ingredients you have to hand.
Barm Brack – a luxurious enriched dough. You can use whatever dried fruit you have in the cupboard and ice it or leave it plain. The spices can also be adapted – add more or less to taste. You can also add a teaspoon or two of treacle if you like. It is normally served sliced and buttered, with the ubiquitous cup of tea.
500g strong white bread flour
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
100g sugar (I used caster sugar, but muscavado or demerara is also good)
250g dried fruit and/or mixed peel, soaked in very strong tea and well drained
2 tbsp butter
About 100 ml warm milk
- Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and spices in a bowl.
- Rub in the butter.
- Beat and add the eggs. Add the milk.
- Bring together in the bowl until it forms a rough dough. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes (or 5 minutes in a mixer with a dough hook).
- Return to the bowl and cover with a damp teatowel. Leave to rise for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. The temperature should be about 20 degrees or above for optimal rising. In the winter I heat the oven a little, turn it off, and then put the bread in there to rise.
- Knead the bread for a minute until the air is beaten out. Then knead in the dried fruit. As this contains moisture, you may need to add a little more flour at this stage.
- Shape into a flattened ball and put on a greased baking tray. Cover and leave to prove for another 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. Don’t leave it too long or it will fall back on itself.
- Heat the oven to 180 degrees and bake for about 40 minutes. After 10 minutes I cover it in tinfoil to prevent it from becoming too brown (or black!) on the outside. When it is done, it should sound hollow if tapped on the bottom.
- Leave to cool, and then ice with icing sugar mixed with water.
Currant bread – this is essentially soda bread with currants in it. The pictures show two slightly different recipes. One loaf has been flattened into a farl shape and I added an egg to the mixture. The other has been left in a round loaf shape and is more crumbly because it doesn’t have an egg.
400g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
About 300 ml buttermilk (as buttermilk is hard to come by in England, I normally use 300 ml milk and 1 tbsp lemon juice – leave this for ten minutes and the result is the same. Thanks Kelli!!)
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
200 currants, soaked in strong tea and drained
1 egg (optional)
- Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix together.
- Put the loaf onto a greased baking tray and shape it into farls or a loaf. Both shapes have a deep cross cut on the surface.
- Bake for about 30 minutes at 180 degrees. When it is done, it should sound hollow if tapped on the bottom.
Michael McLaverty, Call my Brother Back (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2003)
James Davidson, Our Daily Bread: A Look at Ulster Bakeries (Newtownards: Colourpoint Books, 2004)
Dr Lindsey Finch