If you told me 10 years ago that I would enjoy spending hours in the kitchen cooking and baking, or that I would be able to make different breads that people would actually enjoy eating, I know, for a certainty, I would have burst out laughing and so would anyone who knew me at that time.
Growing up, my mother spent the vast amount of her working day outdoors on the farm, milking the cows and looking after the hens, and many other jobs that demanded physical strength and stamina – as well as skill.
Mother was not really a baker or a cook. Food had a very practical role in my early life and I remember fondly Mother frequently ate standing up in the kitchen.
When I was in university, I became obsessed with food. I stopped eating meat completely for a few years, and often lived on muesli, bread, cheese and salad with a glass of wine at night.
I was concerned about the quality of the food I ate, the chemicals and additives that were in food and I liked to buy what could be traced or sourced locally.
At no stage during my 20s, however, did I ever really cook myself a ‘proper’ meal. And as for baking…. quite frankly, I did not have a clue!
So how did the change come about?
In the late 1990s, I met some people working in the mines in Lisheen, near Thurles, who were living in Ireland from South Africa and Australia.
Ricky Benallack and his friend, Gavin, could make a really good curry.
They also knew how to barbecue and showed me how to marinate the meat before cooking and other techniques, and I began to see that making a curry myself, or experimenting with flavours in cooking, was not as terrifying a prospect as I might have previously imagined.
We hosted a big barbecue at Greenville the summer of 2000 when I moved into the cottage, and had family, friends and neighbours over to celebrate. We sat beside a big outdoor fire until the early hours of the morning, looking at what was then the shell of the second house, beside the cottage, that would eventually become my family home.
Shortly after that, when I was living in the cottage on my own, I started to do pasta dishes, curry dishes – basic stuff.
Still, nowhere in the mix was the remote thought that I would start to bake. That was for professionals, in my opinion.
I made my first soda bread sometime toward the end of 2008, that time in my life when I was very broken inside and disillusioned with everything and we were struggling, as a family, to see how we could navigate our future when everything we believed we had worked for was lost.
I didn’t have a recipe for soda bread, but I had bought the beautifully-illustrated cookery book ‘The Country Cooking of Ireland’ by Coleman Andrews and there was a section on breads in the book.
I always loved breads and, when I lived in Paris, the smell from the boulangerie was like experiencing a little bit of Paradise.
I decided I had nothing to lose to try baking a soda bread.
And so I did. I made my first soda bread. And, to my amazement, Seosamh and the boys really liked it.
I started to have the courage to bake bread for family or friends calling for lunch or dinner. Before long, I was baking a few soda breads every week and could do so at remarkable speed, and with very little fuss.
In Ancient Egypt, bread meant ‘life’, so – in a peculiar, or maybe not so peculiar way – bread-making started to give me back some life when my energies were at a very low ebb.
The idea of working with yeast seemed daunting, but it was the obvious next step so I started making pizza dough for home-made pizza and adjusted that recipe to bake yeast breads which go really well with certain local cheeses like Cooleeney and Cashel Blue.
Popular with Visitors
In 2014, a lady from Australia, doing genealogy research, came to stay at the cottage.
Christine Timoney wanted to base herself near the Devil’s Bit Mountain and near Bournea, so she could start to do more in-depth research on that side of her ancestry.
This was also the summer I was involved with the O Meachairs and the Barony of Ikerrin Committee and we were organising a celebration of the clan in August.
For most of that summer, however, while working on the preparations for the event, I was baking more and more breads and found, to my delight, people like Chris who were visiting the area really enjoyed them.
The day I launched the blog at Greenville, I had made my white soda; my Greenville Fougasse (the etymology of the word ‘Fougasse’ comes from Latin ‘focus’ meaning ‘hearth’ because the bread was made under the cinders in the hearth). I also made my Treacle brown – and those who were present tasted and liked them all.
I still have and feed my sourdough starter every day, which we call GV (bet you can guess the genesis of that name) but I am not yet happy with it, so more work needed there.
My kitchen is the culture at the ‘heart’ of Greenville, and I may even do some video-based blogs of some of my recipes later.
Bakery at Mount St. Joseph Abbey in Roscrea
Thinking about this word ‘culture’ (something I have analysed a great deal in my life, given my background in Cultural Anthropology), and taking it out of our home context and into the broader area near where I live, I decided this week to pay a visit to Mount St. Joseph Abbey in Roscrea where the Cisterian monks managed, for several decades, a very highly-respected bakery on their grounds.
They baked for the Monastery; for the boarding school; and, sometimes, for the broader community.
Don, my eldest son, and I spent an hour this evening in the company of Brother Oliver, who worked for 50 years of his life in the Monastery bakery.
He has been a monk for 69 years.
Think about that.
He brought us into the courtyard and pointed out where the bakery was situated (in the corner building on the left in the photograph above).
Next door was the Monastery dairy; next to that the laundry; then the cobbler and finally a type of space where various produce could be stored and collected.
Brother Oliver showed me the old wooden peels they used to put the breads into the oven (I am holding one, standing with him, at the old oven door in the image above).
He showed the tables where the breads were kneaded and explained they used a simple recipe of flour, salt, sugar and water. Sometimes, they used wholemeal from their own mill.
The bakery, the mill, and all these operations are now no longer used. This is a museum on our doorsteps here in Tipperary and I really wish someone could see how important it is to preserve what remains and find the resources to restore, even for tour purposes, these stone buildings and their contents, steeped in local heritage.
Brother Oliver also showed us an old photograph of himself and another monk who worked in the bakery taken, he said, when he was in the prime of his life – Brother Oliver is to the right.
I am to return to see him over the summer and bring him some of my breads to taste. You cannot imagine how honoured I feel to be able to do that.
Bread as Art
Janet Flanner in her book, ‘Paris was Yesterday: 1925-1939’, writes: “In the history of art, there are periods where bread seems so beautiful that it nearly gets into museums”.
I like to think that the breads I make at Greenville are almost part of the art work, part of the creative heart of Greenville.
I also like to think that a place with such local historical importance as the Monastery in Roscrea might be seen as the museum it is, on our doorstep, waiting, hoping, for someone to take notice.