There are times when memories from the past can be evoked so strongly by just one whiff of a smell, a lyric in a song, or a taste on the tongue, so much so that they are immediately transported back to that time and that place and the people with whom they associate it.
I had one of those moments during Ramadan last year when I got a figary (an Irish word for a notion, a whim or a sudden impulse) and decided to make Irish Soda Bread. My siblings and I grew up on this bread made with brown flour and sour milk and my Mum baked it every second day of our lives. Even when we all left home she still baked it for us when we visited and made enough for us to bring back to our own homes. Funny thing about her bread though – I could have some for breakfast in her house in the morning, and have some more in my own home in England that very same evening…..and it just didn’t taste the same. I thought it was my imagination, but then my eldest daughter also remarked on it.
We ate it with butter, and soft boiled eggs for breakfast and Galtee cheese (an Irish processed cheese) or Irish cheddar cheese and mustard or tomatoes for tea (the evening meal in our house), but my favourite topping was stewed rhubarb. One year my husband met me at the airport on my return from Ireland and was complaining about the weight of my bag ‘what on earth do you have in here?’ I waited until I got home to tell him that I had brought back Irish Soda bread and fresh rhubarb from the garden. Many years later I tried not to laugh when his niece who lives in London asked her mother to bring her some vegetables from Algeria that they have in England, but that obviously just didn’t taste the same to her.
I had never attempted to make it here in Algeria because all I could find was white plain flour. There wasn’t even self raising flour until recent years. One friend did give me a grain which she said you could use as a flour but I wasn’t sure how to use it or in what quantities, and while I was procrastinating the moths got busy and suddenly a lot of my foot stuffs were full of worms and moths, so I had to do a complete clear out and went totally off the whole idea of using any flour that didn’t come in a sealed packet.
An Irish friend had given me the recipe for the bread that she had made here so I decided to try it one Ramadan night as a surprise for my children, and the memories came back with the smell emanating from the oven. Memories of my Mum baking it, of long country walks on a cold Sunday afternoon followed by endless cups of tea and Irish Soda Bread, of my Mum after she moved to her new home and found the counter a little too high for her liking and improvising by standing on a block of polystyrene that had come as packaging in a box, whenever she baked it.
The reaction from the eldest three children who would have been old enough to remember my Mum’s bread was all that I could have wished it to be – it was like being back in Ireland with ‘Granny’, and immediately they had to have a slice with cheddar cheese top. One night later in Ramadan I made it again and served it for iftaar by popular request along with lham lahlouh, translated as ‘sweet meat’ and a traditional Ramadan dish in Algeria. It’s called sweet meat but more often than not it’s served without any meat, and often can be simply prunes, cooked with cinnamon, sugar and rosewater the way my children like it or as packed with dried fruit and nuts according to taste. I remember the first time I saw this dish, it was three weeks after I had given birth to my second child, my son, and my sisters-in-law who were staying with us, had cooked a meal for some Algerian guests. I came downstairs and peered into a saucepan on my cooker and saw what looked like a lump of chocolate in a sweet sauce. What a shock I got when the chocolate turned out to be a lump of meat…in a sweet sauce. It took a while for my poor confused taste buds to return to normal. Serves me right for pilfering food in my own kitchen.
When we saw the Irish Soda Bread on the table along with the Algerian lham lahlou my youngest daughter remarked, ‘now that’s what I call a true merging of culures!’
And, in case you’re wondering how my Algerian husband feels about it, a few weeks after he returned from England (he was there all through Ramadan), I made it for him and served it up to him as a surprise, and he was impressed and very happy as he likes it with cheddar cheese on top.
The flour I bought is made from oats of which there are two types in the natural health food shops. One is more whole grain and the second is milled more finely to make a flour, and it’s this latter type that I use. My recipe is as follows:
3 cups of brown flour
1 cup of white flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon of salt
50gm or less of butter/margarine
1 cup and a little of buttermilk
The method is as Irish as Irish can be – mix the dry ingredients together, rub the butter in with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs and then add the wet ingredients until you get a very soft wet dough. Shape it into a round, cut a line across the top in a plus sign that will make it easier to break apart in quarters once baked, and plonk it on a greased baking tin in a preheated oven 180 C for half an hour. Sláinte!