Irish Blaas Bridge Old Traditions, New Cuisine
St. Patrick’s Day used to mean corned beef and cabbage, but with Ireland’s culinary renaissance, cooks are exploring other traditional Irish foods. I’m thinking not only of Irish lamb stew and crubeens, golden-crusted pigs’ feet turned meltingly tender inside a crisp breaded crust. I’m also thinking of the Irish blaas. On a recent visit to Ireland I discovered a bakery that honors this delicious relic of the past.
Barron’s Bakery, in the small town of Cappoquin, County Waterford, is one of Ireland’s last traditional bakeries, with brick ovens dating to 1887. Because these ovens have never been modernized, they still operate without thermostats. Each firing yields a slightly different batch of bread, a variability prized by the townsfolk who flock to Barron’s.
The bakery is most famous for their “blaas” — light, plump yeast rolls with a subtle malty taste and a heavy dusting of flour. The rolls’ origins lie with the thrifty French Huguenots who immigrated to Waterford in the 17th century — blaa is likely a corruption of the French blanc (white) or blé (wheat) — and who are said to have introduced rolls made from leftover pieces of dough.
In 1802, blaas entered the Irish mainstream thanks to Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, who began baking them at Mount Sion Monastery in Waterford City. Made only of flour, water, yeast and salt, these rolls were inexpensive to prepare and thus affordable to the city’s poor.
Ireland recently submitted an application to the European Union to grant the rolls Protected Geographical Indication, PGI, status as a distinctive regional food. This move is significant, as Ireland has generally been slow to request special status for its food products. Only four are currently registered: Connemara Hill lamb; Timoleague Brown Pudding; Clare Island Salmon; and Imokilly Regato, a cow’s milk cheese from County Cork that has Protected Designation of Origin, PDO, status.
The application detailing blaas’ place of origin makes County Waterford sound like a magical realm: “The river Blackwater runs through the area and includes the town-lands of Dangan, Narabawn, Moolum, Newtown, Skeard, Greenville and Ullid.” The actual production of blaas looks a bit more prosaic. The 3-inch rolls are shaped by hand into rounds or squares, with the dough hand-floured at least three times in the process. This heavy dusting of flour both protects the dough from the oven’s intense heat and gives the blaas a distinctive top. Like American pan rolls, the pieces of unbaked dough are set side by side to merge as they rise. When the rolls are ready to eat, they are pulled apart, yielding a crusty top and soft interior and sides.
Irish blaas through the generations
Today, blaas are eaten either for breakfast (the local radio station’s morning program is called “The Big Blaa Breakfast Show”) or for lunch, when they’re often filled with fried potatoes or dilisk, a local seaweed. I was lucky enough to arrive in Cappoquin just as a tray of blaas was emerging from the oven, and the bakery owners, Esther Barron and Joe Prendergast, insisted that I have a taste. A first crisp bite immediately gave way to a tender and aromatic crumb. I was hooked.
Established in 1887, Barron’s remains at the heart of Cappoquin — so much so that last year a book commemorating its 125th anniversary was published with tributes from the bakery’s customers and staff. Esther is the fourth-generation Barron to run the bakery. She’s a remarkable woman, the youngest of five daughters who took over the business on her father’s death in 1980. Even though baking was very much a man’s profession, she made a success of it.
Through her work she tries to honor the memory of her grandfather John, who spent time in New York in the 1880s and dreamed of emigrating to the United States. But his wife and new baby called him back to Cappoquin, where he eventually took over his father’s bakery and sired 11 more kids!
Adding new traditions
Esther and Joe are reviving other traditional Irish baked goods like spotted dog, which is a white soda bread with fruit, and Chester cake, a spice cake originally devised to use up stale bread. And they’re experimenting with the use of locally grown organic wheat to improve their bread and support local farmers. Barron’s is so devoted to the Cappoquin community that they fire their ovens on Christmas Day so that the villagers can roast their turkeys communally.
For St. Patrick’s Day, Barron’s bakes a special cake in the shape of a shamrock, though it’s far from the kind of plain sheet cake you might expect. Theirs is an extravagant madeira cake with lemon curd and buttercream, covered in white fondant and decorated with piped green roses and the Gaelic greeting “La Fheile Padraig.”
For the past three years Barron’s has also organized a big St. Patrick’s Day parade, another aspect of their community involvement. In April, Waterford will be host to its sixth annual Festival of Food, and Barron’s is one of the sponsors. Esther Barron stands ready to welcome guests from near and afar with a taste of her special blaas.
Darra Goldstein. Credit: Courtesy of Darra Goldstein