After my mother’s funeral a cousin said to me, quite casually, ‘Of course she had an eating disorder.’ In all those years it had never occurred to me that my mother’s eating habits might have been described as a disorder; it is like a friend of mine whose father was Ukrainian and who was surprised and indignant when her future husband remarked on her father’s heavy accent: ‘My father hasn’t got an accent!’ That my mother, who was a very good cook, never ate any of the delicious puddings she made – the very best kind: apple crumble, treacle tart, rice pudding – was just the way it was. She never had second helpings either, never ate potatoes, or bread, only Ryvita and cream crackers. She was very thin, but then she always had been.
She didn’t eat bread but she did make it, every week, for my father. A pan of soda bread, white, made in a baking tin, and when she took it out of the oven she put a cloth over it. It was one of the most familiar sights at home, that bread with its chequered dishcloth cooling beside the stove, then later a couple of slices of it in the wooden bread bowl we used to have. That bread bowl is long gone but I can see it as clearly as if it were on the table before me now, and the bread in it, and my father’s hand reaching out for some. He was the only one who ate it, neither of us children liked it, it was too dense, too sour.
Soda bread is Irish, my father must have grown up with it (my mother too, she may not have liked it but she knew how to make it). You don’t need yeast or even an oven for soda bread, in the old days it was made on a griddle over the fire with a pan inverted over it, and it was said that people were ashamed of it, compared with ordinary bread. I started making it myself many years ago, at a time, as Myles na Gopaleen would have said, when it was neither popular nor profitable, also when my own taste had changed. I make it with wholemeal flour, my mother used white. She did not hand on her recipes, so I don’t know how she soured the milk; that is not a problem here as buttermilk is easy to get. Bicarbonate of soda is more difficult, I bring bread soda from Ireland. All I remember her saying about baking soda bread was that you needed ‘a light hand’, and had to make a cross on the top at the end ‘to let the fairies out’.
So many people are baking their own bread at the moment that there is no decent wholemeal flour left at the health food shop. The kind I usually buy comes from England, and last time I went all I could find, washed up on the shores of panic buying, was a single bag of white bread flour: of course that would be the last one left at a health shop. But soda bread can be made with white flour, so I bought it, imagining a new departure, a change in my habits, to go with these changed times. At home I found the recipe for white soda bread in The Ballymaloe Cookbook by Myrtle Allen from 1977, a classic of Irish cooking and in fact my mother’s own copy, salvaged from her last home.
I made it this morning, feeling as if I had never baked bread in my life as everything was different about it, the feel of the flour, the amount of buttermilk, the time it took to cook. But one thing was familiar: when I took it out of the oven it smelled exactly as my mother’s soda bread used to, the smell I remember from our kitchen in England. Bread made by my mother, who was born a hundred years ago last month. In the foreword to her book Myrtle Allen writes about forgotten flavours: ‘”The butter your sister is sending us is very good,” I said to my neighbour one day. “Yes,” he said, “that field always made good butter.” That is long ago, and the fragrance is almost forgotten.’