Before the 16th century, the potato was alien to Ireland. Instead, bread was the cornerstone of the Irish diet, served at every meal. It was made from all cereals and eaten by all, from the simple oat or girdle cakes baked by the poorer members of society, to the finest of wheat breads served to elites.
A bread for horses was even noted in the accounts of the Prior of Holy Trinity, purchased for a trip to Drogheda he was undertaking in the 14th century.
In early medieval Ireland, hospitality was central to the legal, economic, and political value system of the day. According to the Old Irish law tracts, every free, law-abiding Irishman, regardless of rank or position, was entitled to receive hospitality when travelling through the country. If someone of lordly rank called upon a household, the least they could expect to be served would have been a loaf of bread, accompanied by relish and condiment.
There was a vast assortment of breads in medieval times. Some had names we would recognise today, such as oatcakes, barley bread, wholemeal bread, fritters, or gingerbread – although they may have been made differently.Gingerbread, for instance, was made by heating honey, then adding breadcrumbs, ginger and red food colouring. It didn’t require baking.
Breads we may not recognise had quirkier names, such as paindemain, raston, cheat, manchet, wastel, bannock, and flick cake.
Bread had many functions, too: a thick chunk of days-old bread, known as a trencher, was used as a plate and topped with a pottage or stew. Cut into cubes, bread became “sops”, which would have been doused with hot, flavoursome broths, quite often vegetarian. Bread was sometimes soaked in egg and fried. Breadcrumbs were used to thicken stews.
This month’s recipe was recorded around 1420 and is known as a raston. An egg-enriched white loaf, it’s baked twice. The first time it goes in the oven as a loaf, before the top is cut off, the soft middle of the loaf known as the crumb is removed, mixed with clarified butter and baked again, the top having first being replaced. It’s deliciously rich and buttery.
Twice-Baked Rastons (makes two loaves)
- 2 eggs whites
- 1 egg yolk
- 15g/1 tbsp sugar
- 5g/1 tsp salt
- 14g /½ oz dried yeast
- 300ml/½ pt water at 24⁰ C/75⁰ F
- 550g/1 ½ lb plain white flour
- 450g/1 lb clarified butter
For the clarified butter:
Melt unsalted butter in a saucepan. Once melted, allow it to simmer until the foam rises to the top. Once the butter stops spluttering, and no more foam appears to be rising to the surface, remove from the heat. Pass the melted butter through a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth, or through a coffee filter, and discard the solids, leaving the pure clarified butter.
For the bread:
Lightly beat the egg whites and yolk, sugar, salt and yeast together. Mix in the water. Sift the flour into a bowl, make a well in the centre and pour liquid mix into it, drawing flour from the sides to the centre, and forming a dough.
Remove the dough from the bowl to a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Return the kneaded dough into the bowl, cover with a light cloth and leave in a warm place for approximately an hour. During this time, the dough will rise.
Once again remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and knead for a further 5–10 minutes. Divide the dough into two, mould into two round loaves, cover with a light cloth and leave in a warm place for 20 minutes to allow it to rise a second time.
Bake at 230⁰C/450⁰F/gas mark 8 for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover with a cloth and allow to cool. Using a sharp knife, cut off the top of each loaf, remove the crumb or soft middle, breaking it into small pieces.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, mix with the crumb, return this mixture to the bottoms of the loaves, replace the tops, and return to the oven at 180⁰C/350⁰F/gas mark 4 for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve hot.