Blaas from the past: Sourdough is on the rise but it has history here

New artisan bakeries in the southeast are looking locally for ingredients and inspiration

Real sourdough bread, once a rarity in Ireland, is having a moment. Between Waterford and Dungarvan alone, there are no fewer than five bakeries – most of them opened in the past few years – crafting high-quality, fragrant loaves.

What’s more, all five are basing most of their breads on old Irish strains of wheat, grown by local farmers and ground to flour by nearby mills.

It all started with Seagull Bakery’s Sarah Richards following a blaa down a rabbit hole.

At the time, working at a small bakery in Tramore, Richards became fascinated by the history of Waterford’s signature soft roll. Most experts agree it was brought to Ireland by the Huguenots when they were expelled from France in the 17th century.


But that raised a puzzling question for Richards: Though most modern Irish white breads, including blaas, rely on commercial yeast to get their puffy rise, that kind of yeast didn’t become available until nearly 200 years after the Huguenots arrived in Waterford. Neither, for that matter, did baking soda, the other traditional Irish leavener.

There was only one answer possible. “It’s a myth that there was no sourdough bread in Ireland,” she says. Instead, most breads of that era got their rise from the wild yeasts included in scraps of dough from a previous batch – sourdough.

One thing led to another for Richards. Today, in addition to the original Seagull Bakery in Tramore, founded in 2016, in the past two years Richards and husband Conor Naughton have opened Seagull branches in nearby Waterford city and Dunmore East, and expanded into a big new dedicated bakery to supply them.

During roughly the same time, Bart Pawlukojc and Nicole Server-Pawlukojc have opened Arán Artisan Bakery and Bistro in Kilkenny, which started as an adjunct to the restaurant and has now expanded across the street into a separate bakery. And Fergal Walsh and Caitríona Keating have opened Dún Artisan Bakery in Dungarvan.

The breads from these bakeries vary in sourness depending on the type of starter, the variety of wheat, the length of fermentation or rising, and any number of other factors. But they all share a depth of flavour and a chewy texture that industrial white breads lack.

Another thing they all have in common is artisanal production. Rather than the easy reliability of breads made with commercial yeast, sourdough loaves are temperamental divas, requiring trial and error and constant adjustment in the baking process.

And while most commercial breads can be baked in a day, from first mix to final firing, sourdoughs take their own sweet time, some requiring as many as three or four days to complete the process.

Though this may discourage most bakers, for a hardy few this degree of difficulty is catnip. They thrive on the day-to-day changes and challenges.

“Making sourdough is a constant challenge,” says Keating, from Dungarvan’s Dún. “Every day something changes from batch to batch – the level of fermentation, the taste of the flour, the hydration.”

Richards agrees. “It’s not for everyone, but for a person like me who likes challenges and change and solving problems, it’s good. I’d find anything else boring.”

The question of leavener answered, Richards’s next rabbit hole involved the very flour from which the breads are made.

It made just a beautiful loaf of bread. It was absolutely incredible. It tasted like meadows and honey and it was just mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe it

—  Sarah Richards

“I got thinking about the grain,” she says. “The narrative at the time was that you couldn’t grow wheat in Ireland that would be strong enough to make leavened bread. So I went down that rabbit hole too and started learning about heritage grains and ancient grains.”

First, she found a farmer growing an old strain of Irish grain. It had a longer straw than modern grains and was being used for traditional thatching of roofs. The seed heads were being discarded so she convinced him to sell them to her.

Then, at a talk in Dublin, she happened to meet another farmer who had experimented with heritage grain. This turned out to be the jackpot, at least temporarily, but it was enough to get her hooked.

“It made just a beautiful loaf of bread,” Richards says. “It was absolutely incredible. It tasted like meadows and honey and it was just mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe it.”

But it turns out that heritage grains are no more reliable than sourdough starters. “The next year, the grain had really bad quality and it just tasted awful. It was just a coincidence that the harvest had been really good that first year.”

Today, sourcing for Irish wheat is much improved but still not without its problems. Most of the bread bakers in the southeast rely on a few local mills for their Irish flour.

Kells Wholemeal in Co Kilkenny is run by Bill and Robert Mosse, seventh generation millers (and cousins of the well-known potter, Nicholas, whose studio is in an old family mill nearby). Emma Clutterbuck and Pat Foley’s Oak Forest Mills in Piltown, near the Kilkenny-Waterford border, is another popular source, particularly for spelt and other ancient grains. Also popular is Dunany Flour, run by Andrew and Leonie Workman, fourth-generation millers from Co Louth.

“The whole spectrum of local flours makes it more tasty,” says Pawlukojc, who met Nicole while working at Copenhagen’s uber-local Michelin three-star restaurant Noma. “Is it the fact that they mill it right there for us? Is it the fact that the terroir is here? I’m not really sure but the flavour is better and I concentrate on flavour. It just happens that I have the best flour that I can get right here on my doorstep, so I’m using that.”

Unfortunately, Kells is on hiatus at the moment while they’re updating and expanding the mill. They hope to be reopened within six months.

So in love with local grains is he that Pawlukojc has ordered his own small mill from Germany to use until Kells gets back in full production.

Each of the grains he uses has its own character, he says. “Oland is more nutty and creates a buttery finish to the bread. Purple wheat gives a lot of nuttiness, but it can only be used wholegrain because that’s what gives it a purple hue. It’s probably my favourite because it gives so much to the bread. Because it’s wholegrain it makes the bread heavier, more dense, but it gives it so much nutty flavour and so much aroma and the crust is so good. Purple wheat is just amazing.

“For me, Irish spelt is the most difficult. You need a different recipe for every batch of flour. It changes every time. It’s stretchy but not elastic and it also creates a nice buttery, nutty flavour. It really elevates the bread.”

I think there’s going to be a neighbourhood bakery in every town. I think it’s going in that direction, and I think there should be

—  Caitriona Keating

Despite all of its attributes, the rebirth of sourdough bread in the southeast was anything but assured. Asked about the “overnight success” of sourdough recently and Richards rolls her eyes and laughs. She’s been at it for more than 15 years, starting with baking out of her home kitchen and selling at the Tramore farmers market.

“People would be very suspicious,” she says. “I’ve had to break down a lot of barriers over the years. My theory is it’s because I was a crazy woman standing up there in storms in the church parking lot, selling out of the boot of my car. People were passing me for so many years, they felt sorry for me.

“And slowly I built relationships with them. I was really strict with what I sold – if I thought something didn’t work, I wouldn’t sell it. I think because I was so excited about the product, other people got excited too. It’s all about the relationships and the trust that the thing you’re going to give them is the most delicious thing you can make.”

Now that the ice is broken, customers have embraced the new sourdough bakeries wholeheartedly. One sunny morning in Dungarvan, the line at Dún stretches out the door and on to Main Street as inside the bakery a cloud of flour drifts upward toward the skylight.

“We were very bold in doing what we wanted and hoping for the best, right from the start,” says Keating. “When we first opened; we didn’t underestimate our customers and after a couple of weeks they would come in and ask for the ancient grains by name. They knew exactly what they wanted. I couldn’t believe they actually opened their arms to what we were doing.

“I think there’s going to be a neighbourhood bakery in every town. I think it’s going in that direction, and I think there should be.”

“Good bread is a staple of life,” Walsh says.

“Yes,” says Keating. “Everyone should be able to access real bread, real food. That should be available in every community in every small town.”

Arán Artisan Bakery and Bistro: 8, The Arches, Barrack St, Kilkenny, R95 YF30; (087) 759 5064.

Dún Artisan Bakery: 64 Main St, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, X35 DD30; (085) 209 4321.

Seagull Bakery: 4 Broad St, Tramore East, Tramore, Co. Waterford, X91 PX96; (087) 379 1964.

Seagull Bakery Dunmore East: Nymphhall, Dunmore East, Co. Waterford, X91 KH6A; (087) 097 9372.

Seagull Bakery Waterford: 46 Patrick St, Waterford, X91 DH7N; (051) 871 820.