In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle gets kneading and discovers a new kitchen addiction.
“Irish people hate when I say this, but I don’t count soda bread as ‘real bread’. It’s not even particularly healthy, because it has no fermentation. Real bread takes time.” Eoin Cluskey, Master Baker at The Baker’s Table, is correct in so far as I do hate his take on our beloved national bread — but I simply can’t help being caught up in his relentless enthusiasm. He is a ball of upbeat energy, charisma and dedication to his craft. I’ve honestly never met anyone who was this fanatical about bread and, in my food-obsessed little world, that is saying something.
Fermented foods are enjoying a moment in the spotlight, while bread, carbs and poor, much-maligned gluten are shunned as unhealthy. The problem isn’t really bread, and it’s not gluten either unless you’re coeliac or specifically intolerant; the problem is poor-quality bread, the processed sliced pans sitting sluggishly in our stomachs, providing zero nutritional benefit. No wonder so many people think they have an intolerance — we’re not designed to digest things like that. “You don’t even chew it,” Eoin points out, “it just slips down. Real bread has a real crust; it needs to be chewed.”
So why not make bread a healthy, constructive part of your diet, rather than something to avoid or feel guilty over? Fermented foods — such as sourdough, sauerkraut and ‘live’ yoghurts, to name a few — are demonstrably good for your gut, and this is crucial to your overall well-being. Good bacteria in your digestive system affect your nutrient absorption, hormone regulation, digestion, immune response, ability to eliminate toxins and mental health. Taking care of your gut is particularly important after taking antibiotics, which not only kill the offending bacteria, but wipe your gut clean of all the good guys in the process. Pharmacists will advise probiotics to rebuild your natural flora, but the more natural (and tasty) way to accomplish this is to include fermented foods in your everyday diet. To maximise health benefits, Eoin uses only organic flour, fresh yeast and the best of local ingredients, such as yoghurt and buttermilk from Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese.
How does one find the time to bake bread? Eoin is dismissive of the oft heard, “I just don’t have the time.” He’s got the insider scoop on how to get around this: do it in stages. “Say you want fresh bread on Saturday. Mix and knead the dough on Friday morning — once you’ve got the knack, this will take 15 minutes. Leave it to prove in the fridge, which will slow the process down. When you come home from work, take 10 minutes to knock back the dough and shape it. Throw it in a loaf tin, pop it back in the fridge overnight and, when you wake up on Saturday morning, it’s ready to bake.” It sounds so accessible, I’m immediately on board and, in fact, that’s Eoin’s motivation for running the bread course to begin with. “I could do a more intensive, full-day course, but I think people would get overwhelmed and lose interest. I just want to get people fired up and help them to realise that they can do this, too. Bread-baking is for everyone.”
Eoin teaches us how to make a versatile malted dough, which can be used for everything from baguettes and rolls to focaccia and pizza bases, and then we move on to soda breads, packed with a variety of delicious fillings and flavourings. While we wait for everything to bake, Eoin shows us his sourdough starters, grinning like a proud father, and explains the general process of keeping his precious babies alive. He and I have a small falling-out when he claims that French butter is superior to Irish, but I forgive him readily when he sends me home with four different breads, a bag of organic flour and a new passion. As hobbies go, baking is a good one: therapeutic, constructive, budget-friendly, good for my health and very, very rewarding. I may never give up the soda bread, but I know my gut will thank me for feeding it the ‘real’ stuff too.
Eoin Cluskey is now Head Baker at Bread 41 on Dublin’s Pearse Street. Find Eoin’s malted loaf recipe here.