I learnt how to cook at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. I arrived a naive, wide-eyed 18 year old from Ladbroke Grove, and left months later with a newly acquired appreciation of rural life. I learnt how to milk a cow, how to raise ducks, how what you feed chickens directly affects the colour of their yolks. Above all, I learnt about kindness: Irish women took me under their wing; world renowned visiting chefs took the time to talk to me; and the other students - whose ages ranged from 20 to 70 - became like a family to me.
Soda bread will always remind me of that time. Freshly baked every day with buttermilk from the farm cows, and served with jam we made from the fruit we picked. It is the perfect blank canvas: top with seeds for a bit of crunch, add a handful of raisins or chocolate chips, divide the dough and make mini rolls - the opportunities for variation are endless.
Recipe loosely adapted from The Ballymaloe Cookery Course
450g plain white flour
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
350-400ml buttermilk (or plain live yoghurt thinned with milk, or milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice)
Preheat the oven to 220C
Put the flour in a large mixing bowl. Sift in your bicarb and add your salt. If you want to add any additions such as raisins or chocolate chips now is the moment.
Pour most of your liquid into the bowl, reserving some in case it's too wet. With clean hands, use your hand to mix the liquid into the flour until it comes together in a ball. Give it a gentle knead to bring it together, but don't overmix. You may need to use the rest of the liquid.
Place the ball on a floured baking tray, flattening it a bit.
Use a sharp knife to cut a cross into the bread, about 3/4 deep.
Place in the pre heated oven and turn it down to 200C. Cook for 40 mins, at which point he bread should be golden brown. Turn it over so it cooks for 10 mins on the under side.
Tap the bottom of the bread: if it sounds hollow then it's ready, otherwise cook for a further 5-10 mins.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool.