My first distinct food memory is of eating soda bread and blackcurrant jam at my Aunt’s house in Tipperary. I was just five years old and, along with my parents and five siblings, stayed at Mary Ellen’s farm for two blissfully happy weeks of fresh air, chicken chasing and generally running wild.
Whilst this was probably not the first time I had ever eaten soda bread, my mum used to bake it all the time, a whole set of visual and emotional memories clustered around this one family holiday to ensure that it stayed forever fixed in my mind. Sunny days were spent visiting my dad’s family and friends and afternoons ran into evenings full of talk and laughter. When darkness fell we engaged in precarious walks home across the fields – the only time in my life I have actually walked straight into a cow.
On the first morning of our holiday I woke up to the sound of a cockerel crowing in the yard outside and the soft murmur of voices in the kitchen below. Unsure of the rules in this strange house I tentatively ventured forth in my pyjamas – and promptly fell down the steep stairs. More shocked than hurt, my tears were quickly dismissed and my no nonsense aunt shoved a piece of thickly buttered, hot soda bread into my hand and topped it with a dollop of her home made blackcurrant jam – instant and perfect comfort.
I don’t know whether my young legs really couldn’t cope with the steep stairs or whether my unconscious mind was seeking more of the same comfort but I swear I fell down those stairs every morning for the rest of the holiday. After a day or two Mary Ellen realised that the boxes of cereal she had bought for our visit would remain unopened and we all ate her bread and jam for breakfast. By the end of our visit we had consumed a year’s supply of jam, the hens had developed a taste for cornflakes and I had developed a lifelong love of soda bread.
The rest of my childhood consisted of the usual round of school work, household chores, friendships (made and broken) and sibling rivalries but every week was punctuated by wonderful, carefree Sundays. Sunday was about days out in summer, winter roasts with my grandparents and the ubiquitous smell of baking. At the end of the day preparations for Monday began; bath time, my long hair dripping and steaming in front of the fire, last minute homework, my mum frantically ironing a mountain of school uniforms and then a Sunday tea; boiled eggs and soda bread and a simple tray bake – always iced and shimmering with hundreds and thousands.
To most people, soda bread tastes wonderfully earthy, salted with butter and maybe sweet with jam. To me it also tastes of family, warmth and safety; the ultimate, nostalgic comfort food. On cold winter days, when I find myself at a loose end, freshly baked soda bread still has the power to release in me the carefree joy of a much loved, chicken-chasing five year old.