The Rambler 18/10/2002
RECALLING childhood days, when one of the 'wee turns' that I was given was to mind the griddle, the realisation came to me that the ancient art of baking soda bread on a griddle is now extinct, or almost so.
This prompted me to research the history of bread.
Inter alia, I discovered that in ancient times, before the advent of the griddle, baking was done on a large flat hearth stone on which the domestic fire was built.
The trick was to move the fire to one side when the stone was really hot, sweep the base clean with the wing of a goose, and lay the dough down to bake.
That done, the blazing fire was rotated onto the space vacated; ie laid bare by the removal of the baked cake, then was utilised the new 'hot plate' for the next batch of dough. Elementary!
In rural areas, within living memory, an eligible lassie's rating was apt to have been gauged by her ability to bake a good cake of bread.
A lady in my, own neck of the woods who lived to a ripe old age, very ripe, always held the reputation of being the one who was able to bake soda bread better than anyone else in the parish.
At one time, a swain who broached the matter of bringing home a bride, to a parent, was apt to face the challenge - 'Can she bake a good cake of bread' (I am not joking).
Long before the potato came into. common use in this country, in the Seventeenth Century, bread, was a staple food, alongside porridge and meat., Historians tell us what thousands of years ago the baker's art was highly developed in Egypt. From earliest times, the economy of this country rested on two basics.
One was corn, which meant bread and porridge, and the other cattle, which meant meat and milk-products.
One has only to look at supermarket shelves now to see how important these items still are.
Alongside them, most provincial towns have maybe a dozen outlets for home bakery products.
Not 'home' in the traditional sense, of course, but small privately-owned bakeries producing significant quantities of soda, wheaten and other variations of farls, including potato..
Ulster soda farls have been popular with every visitor from abroad who darkened our door.
Returned emigrants simply rave about them, as what they have missed most abroad. In passing, let me observe that in recent years; they have shrunken in size and suffered price inflation.
In a way, it is a pity that, unlike the products of large bakers, 'home' baked bread is not sold by weight locally.
My earliest memories of griddle-baked bread are long. As a nipper, before I started school, a close neighbour at whose fireside I was always welcome, used to set me the task of calling her attention if the bread on the griddle over the large open fire began to smoke (smoulder).
Her griddle was wafer-thin in the centre - actually holed, and scorching of farls was almost impossible to avoid.
She had a new one hung up on the jamb-wall, but her two big hulks of sons couldn't find time to take it to Napier The Blacksmith of Red Hill, to have it hung.
'Hung' meant transferring the hooped handle of the old griddle to the new one.
Two stout lugs on the edges of the circular metal plate carried the handle, from which the griddle was suspended from a crook over the fire when in use.
Any hour, my job was to shout 'Lizzie, the bread's burning' at the first sign of smoke ('no smoke without fire' in her case!). Lizzie had 'Big Joe' to feed and, as I have explained earlier, a four-farl cake of griddle bread was only a starter for Big Joe.
A cake was up to fifteen inches across and three quarters of an inch thick. Home bakeries which I patronise, not in Lisburn, have somewhat smaller farls, very much smaller.
But, remember that, from the growing crop, to get bread, someone must plough, harrow, sow, reap, thresh, winnow, dry, grind, pack, mix, knead, roll and bake!' So maybe the small modern farls, which the old people would have ridiculed, are still value for money.
A century ago, Magheralin was well served by bakeries.
According to an ancient ditty 'It had the finest harbour for the breadcarts to sail in.' McKeown's of Lisburn are also well remembered.
We'll climb aboard a breadcart one of these days. Maybe sample a bap from a West Belfast bap foundry - or some kind of a 'fadge' of bread. (That is Ulster Scotch).