Until recently the only burning question I had about Irish food was the one asked in the spirited song "Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" Then I came across the soda-bread question. "Who puts buttermilk in their Irish soda bread?"
The question is of particular interest in March, the month that every real and honorary Irishman in Maryland encounters the low white loaf. Around St. Patrick's Day, soda bread is the toast of the state. During the rest of the year, it is a very good bread, especially toasted.
I came across the controversy regarding this bread while reading Malachi McCormick's "Irish Country Cooking" (1988 Clarkson/Potter, $17). The author states that "authentic" Irish soda bread is made with sour milk, not buttermilk.
I called up McCormick, and asked him to make his case. Then I called bread makers around the state and asked them to weigh in on the issue of what kind of milk should be used to make soda bread.
McCormick was born in Cobh, County Cork, Ireland. He moved " to New York in 1973 and lives on Staten Island, where he runs Stone Street Press, which specializes in handmade books, many of them about Irish life.
He is an artist who speaks lyrically of many things. When the conversation wound around to soda bread, he was all business.
Historically, buttermilk was not widely available in Irish households, he said. To get buttermilk, you had to have a churn, and not all homes did. But sour milk, milk that has curdled, "was a daily act of God" found in even the poorest households. Rather than toss this "spoiled" milk out, Irish cooks used it to make bread. McCormick said he had seen such soda bread made a few years ago in "Mrs. Ryan's kitchen in Bansha, in County Tipperary." Mrs. Ryan served it warm with butter slathered on it. And it was, McCormick said, a soda bread he "would defend against all comers."
Sour milk is the main, but not the only crucial, ingredient in the bread-making process, he said. The vessel the bread is baked in also is important. Mrs. Ryan used a cast-iron, three-legged pot that the Irish call a bastable oven, he said. Americans might call it a Dutch oven. It is a covered pot that is hung from a hook over a turf fire. As the bread bakes inside the vessel, its lid is covered with a few glowing coals.
Bread makers who don't have peat fires or cast-iron pots can use gas or electric ovens and can substitute a round, 8-inch cake pan, lined with wax paper and covered with a lid, he said.
McCormick also contends that real soda bread contains only baking soda, not baking powder. Baking powder adds "a metallic taste" to an otherwise fine loaf, he said.
A teaspoon of baking soda, with four cups of flour, a pinch of salt, and 1 1/2 cups of sour milk, baked in your covered cast-iron BTC pot for 40 minutes in a 400-degree oven will produce a loaf that will make your heart sing, he said.
Over in St. Michaels, chef Michael Rork took the diplomatic approach to the soda-bread issue. He agreed and disagreed with his fellow Irishmen.
Rork said he uses buttermilk to make the soda bread served in his St. Michaels restaurant, the Town Dock. But he recalled that when he was growing up on Long Island, N.Y., his Irish grandmother used sour milk to make the clan's soda bread. "I'm not sure why she used it," Rork said. "It was one of those things you didn't ask about it."
Rather than waiting for the milk to turn sour, Rork said, his grandmother helped the process along by adding a pinch of cream of tartar. (Cookbooks say 1 1/4 teaspoons of cream of tartar for every cup of milk sours the milk.)
Rork agreed with McCormick that baking powder wasn't necessary. Sodium bicarbonate, commonly called baking soda, provides all the lift the dough needs, he said.
In Washington, Thomas Stack -- the restaurant chef at the Phoenix Park Hotel, an Irish-owned establishment that is within walking distance of the Capitol -- handled the sour-milk question with a smoothness most congressmen would envy.
"The bread works with both buttermilk and sour milk," he said. "But sour milk is better. It is the old-fashioned way. The longer you leave the milk [sitting] out, the more it gets separated, the better it is."
Stack, a native of Ireland, said that Americans' taste in bread differs from that of native Irishmen. Americans like their bread sweeter than most of the Irish, he said. And, while most Irishmen like their soda bread plain, many Americans prefer raisins in it.
Finally I talked with Dietrich Paul, who bakes the soda bread sold at Muhly's Bakery and Coffee Shop near Baltimore's Cross Street Market and at the Long Point Bakery in Pasadena.
Paul said he got his soda-bread recipe from "an old Irish lady I met in the Poconos who gave me her family recipe." The Irish lady told him that if he used buttermilk, he would make a grand soda bread. She was right, he said. Besides, Paul said, how could he, a German, disagree with an Irish woman about how to make this lovely loaf?