My enduring memories of Ireland were formed as a child over forty years ago. I remember boarding the overnight flight in the Boston darkness and waking up to the most incredible display of green fields I have ever seen. I suppose for many it is like seeing Fenway Park for the first time.
Once we hit land, the first stop was at my Uncle's house. He was the Baker. There were no such things as supermarkets in Ireland in those days. Every day the items for the daily meals were bought fresh. The candlestickmaker may have been long gone but the butcher and baker were still thriving businesses back then.
I remember driving with my Uncle in his "bread van". It resembled a retro version of those European looking Ford Transit Connect vans you see on the roads these days. We all piled in and went down to his Bakery. The smell was incredible and there was as much creme filling as you could eat.
There wasn't a store front at the Bakery. Instead my Uncle would drive the bread van to all the little grocers in about a 20 mile radius and deliver the fresh bread every day. It was a hard life but it was more than enough for him and my Aunt to raise four children, my cousins.
Fast forward forty years. My Mother relocated her shop in Norton this year. Around Christmas time I thought it would be a good idea for her to offer some traditional Irish soda breads to her customers to sample as they browsed around.
I have been experimenting with baking different types of bread we try on our travels but up to that point it had never been Irish bread.
I talked to my Mother about how she makes it. Irish bread is called soda bread because the leavening agent is baking soda, not yeast. We had a lot of fun trying a few different minor variations while staying true to the spirit of her family recipe. The Committee (me, my wife, my kids, and my Mother) had to decide between two finalists in each category. We picked favorites and away we went.
The response was very positive. Customers really seemed to enjoy it. People started to ask if it was available to take home. So one weekend in November I made four extra loaves. Two were traditional "brown bread" and the other two used white flour with raisins. All four were gone by Sunday.
In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas the weekend total slowly increased. Things got to the point where my Mother actually needed to start a reservation list for Christmas Eve.
I always admired my Uncle's life as a baker. On those quiet Saturday mornings baking six or eight loaves of bread in our kitchen gave me a small glimpse into what it must have been like for him.
On Christmas Eve, however, my little hobby had transformed into a full fledged Irish bakery.
Equipped with my list I got up at 4:00 AM and employed every technique I had learned in my six week apprenticeship. I made thirty six authentic loaves of Irish bread by hand from scratch. My only tools were bowls, pans, and a spatula. The ingredients were the finest available.
By 10:00 AM I felt like my arm would fall off at the elbow from forcing the reluctant ingredients to get along by the force of wooden handled spatula, my version of a conductor's baton.
Our sunroom had been transformed into a cooling room. It was a sight to behold. As the batches cooled, we bagged the bread up and my wife sealed each with a satin ribbon.
I loaded up my "bread van", my wife’s hand me down minivan, and made the deliveries in batches. Back and forth I went all day. The faster they were put out, the faster they were gone.
By 3:00 it was over. Thirty six loaves of bread, handmade in the Irish tradition in a Norton kitchen, would be on tables all over the region as part of family Christmas celebrations.
My Uncle, the Baker, is gone. My own beloved bread van didn't make it much past Christmas and got traded in a few weeks ago. My bakery is back to part time and my wife has the kitchen back. However, I'll never forget the beautiful smell at my Uncle's bakery in Ireland and I'll never forget the day I was a Baker, just like him.