Have you heard of Common Knowledge, it’s a really interesting not-for-profit social enterprise, based near Kilfenora in North Co Clare.
Harrison Gardner, a young Australian designer and eco-builder had a craving to restore a stone cottage. He found what he was looking for outside Ennistymon, Co Clare. Then met a charming Irish colleen called Erin and the rest is, as they say, history.
But the extra dimension to the story is that Harrison decided to share and pass on his skills to others who were eager to learn how to build, mend, recycle and grow. Build School was created to empower, upskill and give individuals and communities confidence to do it themselves.
In 2022, Common Knowledge was established as a sustainable living project in the midst of 50 acres in the Burren.
Nowadays, during this cost of living crisis, many young people can’t afford to buy a house. Hence every Hands On Common Knowledge course, teaching the skills to build your own house is over subscribed with an eclectic mix of men and women and LGBGT, eager to learn basic building skills.
Check out the web site for info on the wide range of courses on offer… www.ourcommonknowledge.org.
More recently, as part of National Heritage week, Harrison and his co founder and CEO, Fionn Kidney organised The School of Lost Skills Festival. I was invited to participate in a panel and decided to show everyone how to make a loaf of our traditional Irish soda bread and a little block of homemade butter. Most certainly, an almost forgotten skill from many.
Soda bread or ‘a cake of bread’ as it was traditionally known is made in minutes. Next time you are out of bread, instead of hunting for your car keys to go to the supermarket, turn on the oven, take out your scales and weigh 450g of flour, add a level teaspoon of salt and the same of bicarbonate of soda, stir in 350-400 mls buttermilk. Shape it into a loaf or cut into scones, then straight into the oven.
The scones will be baked in 10 to 12 minutes, a loaf will need 35 to 40 minutes.
It’s crazy to say “I don’t have enough time to bake”, You wouldn’t have found your car keys and be back from the shops by the time the bread is baked… And ooh, the aroma of freshly baked bread and the satisfaction of taking a loaf of crusty bread out of the oven.
such joy. Don’t forget to pass on the skills and urge them to pass this basic life skill on to their friends, a gift for life…
I also made butter in a twinkling. Now, I can hear you saying, where does she think I’ll get time to make butter – Well once again, it’s made in no time. Remember all you have to do is over whip cream, either intentionally or accidentally and hey presto, you have butter. Just wash it well in several changes of cold water, add 2% salt, chill and enjoy. Pure magic and you can either drink the buttermilk or save it to make soda bread, a day or two later.
I also encouraged people to get a few hens and to learn how to forage for food in the wild, another really important, almost forgotten skill. Here are a few tried and tested recipes to have fun and experiment with.
Traditional Irish White Soda Bread and Scones
Soda bread only takes 2 or 3 minutes to make and 30 – 40 minutes to bake, scones will be ready in just 10 minutes.
It is certainly another of my ‘great convertibles’. We have had the greatest fun experimenting with different additions and uses. The possibilities are endless for the hitherto humble soda bread. This bread which was originally baked in a pot oven called a bastible over the open fire can also be cooked in a casserole in the oven, to produce a similar result.
Makes 1 loaf
450g plain white flour
1 level tsp salt
1 level tsp bread soda
sour milk or buttermilk to mix, 350-400ml approx.
First fully preheat your oven to 230ºC/Gas Mark 8.
Sieve the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using just one hand to mix with your fingers stiff and outstretched, like a claw, mix in a full, circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky.
When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface. WASH AND DRY YOUR HANDS.
Then with floured hands, tidy it up and flip over gently. Pat the dough into a round, about 4cm deep and cut a cross on it (the traditional blessing), then prick in the four corners to let the fairies out of the bread, otherwise they will jinx it!
Transfer to a baking tray.
Bake in a hot oven, 230ºC/Gas Mark 8 for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 200ºC/Gas Mark 6 for 30 minutes or until cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread, when it is cooked it will sound hollow.
Cool on a wire rack.
A few variations…
White Soda Scones
Make the dough as above but flatten the dough into a round 2.5cm deep approx. Cut into scones. Cook for 10-15 minutes approx. in a hot oven (see above), depending on size.
Cheddar Cheese Scones or Herb and Cheese Scones
110g grated mature Cheddar cheese
Make the White Soda bread or herb dough. Stamp into scones, brush the top of each one with egg wash and then dip into grated cheddar cheese, bake as for soda scones, or use to cover the top of a casserole or stew.
Basic Brown Soda Bread
This is a more modern version of Soda Bread, couldn’t be simpler, just mix and pour into a well-greased tin. This bread keeps very well for several days and is also great toasted.
Makes 1 loaf or 3 small loaves
400g stone ground wholemeal flour
75g white flour, preferably unbleached
1 tsp salt
1 level tsp bread soda, sieved
1 egg, preferably free range
1 tbsp sunflower oil, unscented
1 tsp honey or treacle
425ml buttermilk or sourmilk approx.
sunflower or sesame seeds (optional)
Loaf tin 23×12.5x5cm OR 3 small loaf tins 14.6cmx7.62cm
Preheat oven to 200ºC/Gas Mark 6.
Put all the dry ingredients including the sieved bread soda into a large bowl, mix well. Whisk the egg, add the oil and honey and buttermilk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid, mix well and add more buttermilk if necessary. The mixture should be soft and slightly sloppy, pour into an oiled tin or tins – using a butter knife, draw a slit down the middle. Sprinkle some sunflower or sesame seeds on the top. Bake for 60 minutes approximately (45-50 minutes for small loaf tins), or until the bread is nice and crusty and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.
quantity of buttermilk can vary depending on thickness. Add 1-2 tbsp of cream
to low-fat buttermilk (optional).
During my childhood, many people in the country were poor, and their daily staple would have been wholemeal bread. White flour was more expensive than brown so white soda bread was considered to be more luxurious – a treat for special occasions. At times of the year when work was harder, such as at harvest or threshing, or maybe on a Sunday when visitors were expected, the woman of the house would add a bit of sugar and a fistful of dried fruit and an egg to the white bread to make it a bit more special. Nowadays, this does not seem such a big deal but back then any money that the woman of the house got from selling her eggs was considered to be her ‘pin money,’ used for little luxuries such as hatpins. Putting an egg into the bread was one egg less that she could sell, so it actually represented much more than it would for us today. This bread was called Spotted Dog, and when it was still warm, she’d wrap it in a tea towel and bring it out to the fields with hot sweetened tea in whiskey bottles wrapped in newspaper or cloth to insulate them. The farm workers would put down their tools and sit with their backs to the haystacks. She’d cut the bread into thick slices and slather on yellow country butter. My memories of sitting down with them are still really vivid. We sometimes make ‘spotted puppies’ which are the same bread, shaped into 6 rolls and baked for 20minutes.
Makes 1 traditional loaf
450g plain white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
75g sultanas (or more if you’d like)
1 organic egg
about 350 – 425ml buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 220°C/Gas Mark 7.
In a large mixing bowl, sieve in the flour and bicarbonate of soda; then add the salt, sugar and sultanas. Mix well by lifting the flour and fruit up in to your hands and then letting them fall back into the bowl through your fingers. This adds more air and therefore more lightness to your finished bread. Now make a well in the centre of the flour mixture. Break the egg into the base of a measuring jug and add the buttermilk to the 425ml line (the egg is part of the liquid measurement). Pour most of this milk and egg mixture into the flour.
Using one hand with the fingers open and stiff, mix in a full circle drawing in the flour mixture from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet and sticky.
The trick with Spotted Dog like all soda breads, is not to over mix the dough. Mix it as quickly and gently as possible, thus keeping it light and airy. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured worked surface. WASH AND DRY YOUR HANDS. Roll around gently with floury hands for a second, just enough to tidy it up. Flip over and flatten slightly to about 5cm approx. Transfer to a baking tray lightly dusted with flour. Cut the surface with a deep cross and prick in each corner to let the fairies out of the bread. Let the cuts go over the sides of the bread to make sure of this. Put into the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 200°C/Gas Mark 6. Cook for 35-40 minutes. If you are in doubt about the bread being cooked, tap the bottom: if it is cooked it will sound hollow. This bread is cooked at a lower temperature than soda bread because the egg browns faster at a higher heat.
Serve freshly baked, cut into thick slices and smeared with butter and jam. Spotted Dog is also really good eaten with Cheddar cheese.
American Emigrant’s Soda Bread
Caraway seeds and sultanas were added to soda bread in Ireland long ago, but the tradition went by the wayside. Not so in America, where soda bread often has caraway seeds and sultanas in it. Usually when I go to the US, I take Irish recipes there, but I was delighted to bring this one back to Ireland! Simply add 1 – 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds to the Spotted Dog recipe and proceed as above (the amount of caraway will depend on the freshness of the caraway seeds).
Soda Bread Pizza with Delicious Toppings
Far from traditional, this is a riff on a deep pan pizza. I can’t tell you how many times this soda bread pizza base has come to the rescue when I needed to whip up a dish of something filling and delicious in no time at all. It can be as simple as a topping of grated mature Cheddar cheese or halved, well-seasoned cherry tomatoes or you can go the full percorino or quatre formaggio.
450g plain white flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 level tsp sea salt
extra virgin olive oil, for brushing
1/2 – 1 tbsp chopped rosemary
50g chorizo, sliced
350g Tomato Fondue or chopped fresh or tinned tomatoes mixed with seasoning/spices
8 bocconcini, halved
15g Parmesan cheese, grated
lots of snipped flat-leaf parsley
Fully preheat the oven to 230°C/Gas Mark 8.
Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre. Pour in 375ml of the buttermilk and, using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. Mix to a softish, not too wet and sticky consistency, adding more buttermilk if necessary. When it all comes together, turn out the dough onto a floured board, knead lightly for a few seconds, tidy it up and flip it over.
Brush a roasting tin, approx. 31 x 23 x 5cm, with olive oil. Roll out the dough lightly to fit the tin and sprinkle with rosemary. Scatter the sliced chorizo evenly over the surface. Spread a layer of tomato fondue over the chorizo and arrange some halved bocconcini on top. Sprinkle over the Parmesan.
Transfer the tray to the fully preheated oven on a low rack and bake for an initial 15 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 200°C/Gas Mark 6 and bake for a further 20–25 minutes or until the dough is cooked and it’s golden and bubbly on top.
Sprinkle with the parsley and serve with a good green salad.
Other tasty toppings
’Nduja and Bocconcini
Follow the main recipe, omitting the rosemary and replace the chorizo with 125g ’nduja. Sprinkle with lots of fresh marjoram to serve.
Pesto and Parmesan
Follow the main recipe, omitting the rosemary and chorizo and replacing the tomato fondue with 3 tbsp of loose basil or wild garlic pesto. Top with 110–150g grated mozzarella or 110–150g soft goat’s cheese and 15g grated Parmesan.
Cheddar Cheese and Spring Onion
the main recipe, omitting the chorizo and replacing the rosemary with 4
tablespoons of sliced spring onions and the Parmesan with 100g grated mature
You don’t absolutely need timber butter bats to make butter, but they do make it much easier to shape the butter into blocks. They’re more widely available than you might think, considering butter making is certainly an alternative enterprise. Keep an eye out in antique shops and if you find some, snap them up. A good pair will bring you ‘butter luck’. Unsalted butter should be eaten within a few days, but the addition of salt will preserve it for two to three weeks. Also, you can make butter with any quantity of cream but the amount used in the recipe below will keep you going for a week or so and give you enough to share with friends (though not in my house!). Remember, sunlight taints butter (and milk) in a short time, so if you are serving butter outdoors, keep it covered.
Makes about 1kg butter and 1 litre buttermilk
This recipe may be halved for a small quantity.
2.4 litres unpasteurised or pasteurised double cream at room temperature
2 tsps dairy salt (optional)
pair of butter bats or hands
Soak the wooden butter bats or hands in iced water for about 30 minutes so they do not stick to the butter.
Pour the double cream into a cold, sterilized mixing bowl. If it’s homogenised, it will still whip, but not as well. If you’re using raw cream and want a more traditional taste, leave it to ripen in a cool place, where the temperature is about 8°C (46°F), for up to 48 hours.
Whisk the cream at a medium speed in a food mixer until it is thick. First it will be softly whipped, then stiffly whipped. Continue until the whipped cream collapses and separates into butterfat globules. The buttermilk will separate from the butter and slosh around the bowl. Turn the mixture into a cold, spotlessly clean sieve and drain well. The butter remains in the sieve while the buttermilk drains into the bowl. The buttermilk can be used to make soda bread or as a thirst-quenching drink (it will not taste sour). Put the butter back into a clean bowl and beat with the whisk for a further 30 seconds to 1 minute to expel more buttermilk. Remove and sieve as before. Fill the bowl containing the butter with very cold water. Use the butter bats or your clean hands to knead the butter to force out as much buttermilk as possible. This is important, as any buttermilk left in the butter will sour and the butter will go off quickly. If you handle the butter too much with warm hands, it will liquefy.
Drain the water, cover and wash twice more, until the water is totally clear.
Weigh the butter into 110g, 225g or 450g slabs. Pat into shape with the wet butter hands or bats. Make sure the butter hands or bats have been soaked in ice-cold water for at least 30 minutes before using to stop the butter sticking to the ridges. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and keep chilled in a fridge. The butter also freezes well.
If you wish to add salt, you will need ¼ teaspoon of plain dairy salt for every 110g of butter. Before shaping the butter, spread it out in a thin layer and sprinkle evenly with dairy salt. Mix thoroughly using the butter pats, then weigh into slabs as before.
I much prefer unadulterated butter, rather than butter with additives that change the texture. So, if you want to be able to spread butter easily, simply leave it out of the fridge for a few hours in a covered container.
Traditional Country Butter
Irish country butter was made from cream that was ripened for several days in a dairy at about 8°C /46°F, so the flavour was more rich and complex.