Begorrah. Slainte. Shite. That’s about the sum of my Irish vocabulary, which I learned after spending a short week in the Ancient East coastal area of rolling green hills, gently capped waters, Celtic crosses, 99 ice creams. It’s what you’d expect of Ireland (maybe not the 99’s…more on that), it doesn’t disappoint. But there’s so much more.
Take Ollie O’Neill. Shy, with pale skin and blue eyes (he didn’t want his picture taken – too shy), a baker’s cap set carefully on his reddish-tinged hair, he moves with quiet precision in a warehouse-like bakery at the side of the road in the freckle-sized town of Annagasan. He mixes brown bread dough, a blend of crushed whole wheat, white flour, bran, soda, salt and buttermilk, then plops fistfuls into blackened pans which will be slid into an enormous oven. He talks while he works, his gestures automatic yet careful. He probably inherited them along with his Irish DNA because his great grandfather started the bakery. Today, he works it with his brother, John, and his father Michael (Red Mick…everyone in Ireland has a nickname).
Brown bread is just one of the many that the O’Neill bakery produces. Ollie and the other bakers start work at 3 a.m., and by 8 much of their bread is baked – from the tall, muscular white batch bread, to the seed bread, to the springy spelt cylinder to the raisin-studded brac. All the flour is Irish, and so are the recipes, committed to memory generations past.
There’s no shop at this quiet spot yet customers form a constant stream, winding their way through the racks of loaves cooling outdoors in the sea air. They all know each other, they’ve all grown up together no doubt. And if they can’t make it into the bakery they call in an order; a fleet of red trucks wends along the lanes of this verdant place, dropping loaves at individual doors. They deliver to shops and grocery stores too, fresh bread six days a week, made with local flour, seasoned with gentle sea air. If you find yourself in this spot of the world, look for O’Neills bread.
Next door is the Glyde Inn or, as the locals call it, O’Neill’s . I was waiting for the loaves to bake and slipped over there for a coffee, but it was closed. Ollie directed me to the little shop across the road. “She’ll have some coffee,” he said, and indeed she – Roisin – did. “But it’s na good,” she says. “Sorra to say and I’ll only charge you a euro,” she added with a quick pat on the back of my hand.
“The ‘poob’ isn’t open as of yet but ya can use their tables,” she added as I walked out the door.
She knows because the pub owner, Paul O’Neill , who happens to be Ollie’s uncle, is her brother-in-law. I followed her suggestion and sat at a round wood table, sipping – sort of – the coffee which was as bad as advertised. I heard the pub door creak open and before I knew it a crisp, elderly gent was sitting next to me. It was early in the morning but he was already filled with the devil, cracking jokes and making me laugh so hard I almost spit out my coffee. I asked his name and he pulled out a big wad of euros to inspect. “Don’t know,” he said. “And they’re not tellin’ me.”
“Do you make coffee?” I asked.
“Sure’n we do, come in,” he said.
I sat at the bar, a place I was already familiar with from the evening of “Trad” the night before. A group of amateur local musicians come to play traditional music with the bodhran (Irish drum), the Irish bouzouki (flat back acoustic guitar) and a variety of fiddles, pipes, and accordions, and speak only Irish – they’re so good that calling them amateurs isn’t fair.
Guests from the few rooms Mr. O’Neil rents were in the dining room awaiting their breakfast, and Mr. O’Neill was the server and the barrista, so it took awhile. But it was worth waiting for, and so was the impromptu harmonica concert Mr. O’Neill decided to give after he’d served the diners.
I had to run to the bakery to snap the breads coming out of the oven, so I told Mr. O’Neill I’d be back, put a saucer over my coffee to keep it warm, and got the job done. When I returned with warm loaves in my bag, there were two new cups of coffee on the bar and Mr. O’Neill was wiping dishes.
Did he mind if I had a slice of the bread I’d gotten next door?
“You’ll need a plate with that,” he said, and he bustled off, returning with a plate on which sat two, golden brown sausages, two big pats of butter and marmalade. I indicated the second cup of coffee. “You’re joining me, correct?” I asked. “Naw lassie, they’re both for you.”
What a breakfast. Warm brown buttermilk bread from the bakery, sausages made down the road, straight from the pan. Delicious coffee. When two people walked in asking if there were croissants to go with coffee Mr. O’Neill said “Naw, we haven’t got those,” and they turned away. Oh, I thought, what a grand and delicious boat you’ve missed.
And what is the 99? Well, let me tell you. It is sold from gas stations, grocery shops, and anywhere you see a tall, plastic soft-serve ice cream cone outside. You walk in and ask for a 99 and for a couple of euros you’ll be handed a very tall swirl of vanilla soft serve in a crisp cone, with a Cadbury’s flake – a 99 – stuck in it. Don’t smirk and don’t laugh. It’s simply what the doctor ordered. Probably every day.
Why 99? Well, the flakes (from Cadbury of course) are called “Flake 99” but there’s a deeper history. When Italy had a king, he had an elite army consisting of 99 soldiers. Anything considered first class at that time was referred to as “99”. And that’s the story. But stay tuned, because there is more to come….
Notes about the recipe: King Arthur has wholemeal, so you can order it and make the wonderful bread, below.