Through the centuries Irish bakers used many different leavening agents to make their bread rise. In early Christian times, dough was leavened with barm, a liquid yeast product of beer brewing. Another ancient method employed a sourdough starter, which is a piece of fermented dough left over from a previous baking. Because adding the starter to a fresh batch of bread caused the new dough to rise magically, the small bit was called “blessed bread.” Surprisingly, soda bread did not enter the Irish baking tradition until the 19th century when baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) was invented. When added to wheat flour along with buttermilk, it produces the flavorful loaf that is now almost synonymous with Ireland.
There is little that can compare to the taste of fresh-baked wholemeal brown bread, soda bread, farls or oatcakes slathered with butter and homemade fruit preserves, but the Irish make a wealth of other baked goods too. Originally, only honey was added to make sweet breads for special occasions. Norman cooks added exotic spices and dried Mediterranean fruits, inventing gingerbread and currant cakes. Tudor English introduced caraway seed cake served with glasses of purloined Spanish port as an afternoon treat.
But it was almost certainly an Irish brewer who thought to stir Ireland’s other favorite grain products into a select few of its baked delights. By adding a wee bit of porter or stout to plain fruitcake dough, or a splash of whiskey to chocolate cake batter, both are transformed into masterpieces of the Irish baking tradition and singular examples of Irish hospitality.