Bread is referred to as the 'staff of life' and so it is in Ireland, where bread has been an integral part of the national diet for millenia. In early Irish law, wheat meal was the most highly prized type of flour. Because Irish wheat was traditionally low in protein and gluten, yeast never played a role in traditional Irish bread-making. Irish bread seems to have been unleavened until relatively recently. In the 19th century, bicarbonate of soda first became available, creating the most quintessential Irish bread - soda bread.
Buttermilk left over from churning is an essential part of soda bread. The lactic acid contained within it reacts with the bicarbonate of soda to create carbon dioxide bubbles. Unlike yeast bread, this method does not require kneading. As well as the savoury loaf, sweetened fruit breads such as barmbrack can be made using raisins, sultanas and spices. Types of griddle cake known as soda farls are popular in Ulster, where bread dough is flattened into a circular shape before being cut into four pieces and fried on a dry pan.
Though soda bread is the most recognisable form of Irish bread, there are a number of yeast breads associated with Ireland. The changeover from soda to yeast can be credited to (or blamed on) the Irish Yeast Company, run out of an unassuming and rather tumbledown building in College Street in Dublin. It was started in 1890 and supplied many of the bakeries in Ireland with yeast for much of the 20th century. This period saw a transformation from soda baking to yeast, which was imported from England. During this time, a range of new bread recipes appeared which have become inextricably linked with Irish cuisine. Ireland has also been beset with an epidemic of caeliac disease, probably due to the modern addiction to high-protein, high-gluten white flour, imported from countries like Germany and Canada.
Batch bread - also known as turnover loaf - is characterised by is fluffy, chewy texture and hard baked brown crust. It gets its name from the tradition of baking it in batches, and the cutting the loaves up after baking. This resulted in the bread having a crunchy, crumbly crust on top, but not on the sides.
The turnover loaf is differentiated from batch bread by its boot-like shape and was particularly associated with Dublin. In Thomas Street there were bakeries which specialised in turnover loaves - a testment to its popularity with the Dublin clientele. Many Irish children remember eating it spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar as a particular treat.
Blaa is a white roll which is particularly associated with Waterford. It resembles a bap, except that it is square in shape and has a characteristic chewy consistency and crunchy exterior. They can be eaten plain with butter or with any kind of sandwich filling, or as a breakfast roll.
The Woodstock Café in Phibsborough occasionally serves a burger with a blaa as burger bun. While the origin of the blaa is disputed, it has become a staple Waterford export, and part of a growing appreciation for the indigenous bread of Ireland.