And still we rise: small bakeries embrace Ireland's love affair with bread – Irish Examiner

Angela Nöthlings of Ryes & Shine Microbakery, Cork, preshaping the Mayfield bloomer. Picture: Denis Minihane.
While stockpiled sliced pans of processed white bread became a status symbol during the Big Freeze, post-pandemic, processed bread is veritably passé. Wellbeing is more of a priority than ever and a slew of innovative bakers are re-inventing bread to meet this need.
The Happy Tummy Co
When I speak to Karen O’Donoghue, owner of The Happy Tummy Co, I’m going through a particularly acute bout of abdominal pain accompanied by brain fog.
A lot of Karen’s customers are at a juncture, she tells me, often suffering for years with poor colon health.
“They’ve kind of lost hope. Some Irish people have this mentality that if you have a problem, you’re stuck with it and you have to suffer through it.” 
Karen’s signature loaf which costs €25 has led to phenomenal results and testimonials on her website, including a glowing one from Goldie Hawn describing the bread as “magic.”
Last Christmas, a customer named Richard who suffered with long-term diverticulitis drove four hours to stock up for the Christmas period.
Originally from Carrigrohane, Karen set up the business in London, before moving to Westport in November 2020.
“I was born bowel-challenged. We Irish people have a serious affinity to carbohydrates. Because of the weather and because we work really hard; carbs lean into our high energy lifestyle.”
Karen herself struggled with disordered eating and it wasn’t until it clicked that food was an instrument for enhancing wellbeing rather than shame that she resolved those issues.
She experimented with different formulas for years before coming up with The Happy Tummy loaf which sought to feed the gut microbiome from within, and in turn, enhance wellbeing in the other areas of the body.
Raising awareness around changing our relationship with food is at the cornerstone of everything Karen does. She is aware that women’s weight in particular fluctuates, especially around the menstrual cycle, during menopause or indeed, perimenopause.
“I don’t shy away from talking about weight loss, because it’s such an important topic for some women. But in the same vein, I would never be promoting it.
While we’re facing into a harsh winter where many will have to restrict their use of electricity and buy cheaper, unbranded foods, one thing Karen’s customers are not scrimping on is her bread. Having moved from the UK, she feels that Irish people are less likely to be detracted by the price if they experience the health benefits.
“My biggest culture shock was that, moving back to Ireland, I thought the price would really turn people off.
“We have farmers, we have postmen, we have people in their 80s using it instead of laxatives and every single person who comes in says, ‘fair play to you for charging the right price’.”
Karen knows that having a slice of bread and a cup of tea is one of life’s greatest pleasures — while most diets are focused on restriction, her philosophy is about adding her bread which feeds the gut with prebiotics and produces enzymes needed to break down other foods.

Ryes and Shine
I step into Angela Nöthlings’ microbakery in Mayfield and the waft of sourdough is intoxicating. There are several varieties of loaves perched on a bread board on the kitchen table and I try to conceal the fact that I’m salivating with the urgency of one of Pavlov’s dogs.
“Don’t mention sampling the bread,” I think to myself although my face must betray me as Angela starts slicing what she tells me is nettle and sunflower rye bread; it’s fragrant, malty and slightly sour-tasting, delicious with a drizzle of honey and the dark roast coffee I’m imbibing.
In Angela’s native Germany, to sell bread, one must embark on an intensive training programme which can be up to four years long.
Luckily, the Irish system isn’t as strict, and Angela achieved her two goals soon after she began trading during the pandemic — to pass an HSE inspection, and to become a member of Real Bread Ireland, a network of professional bakers that she leaned on heavily in Ryes and Shine’s infancy.
Angela knew how to make good bread and she felt the business savvy would come.
“I learned about sourdough 25 years ago when I moved here. My mum always baked it. I missed the good bread and I needed to make it myself. But then my knowledge stood still. I just made the same recipes. So, I started listening to [The Sourdough Podcast]. I had no idea in those 20 years, how much sourdough had developed.”
Word of mouth was instrumental in building her brand.
“I just asked people at work. And five or six people said yes to one or two loaves. Now I have 80 customers.”
Of the four loaves she offers, the Schwarzbrot is her favourite — a fibre-rich rye sourdough bursting at the seams with pumpkin, sunflower, millet, and linseed. A mineral-rich, wholesome bread, it has proved very popular, especially amongst IBS-sufferers.
“Women especially come back and say ‘my digestion is just working now’ and they can tolerate it.”
While Ryes and Shine may be young, Angela’s sourdough starter has been brewing for over 25 years and counting. She lovingly refers to it as Oscar — I coo over it like I would with a newborn baby — it feels fitting.

Dún Bakery
Fergal Walsh, owner of Dún Bakery is doing things differently. He and partner Caitriona have their own smallholding, growing fruit and vegetables, and he has a begun a barter system with neighbours who often supply seasonal fresh fruit in exchange for a cup of coffee at the café; their farm to fork ethos is very much alive.
“We’re picking one day,” he says, “cooking and serving the next day. That’s the brief we set ourselves. Everything has to come from raw ingredients. There’s nothing pre-made.”
Fergal and Caitriona opened the bakery during the pandemic and it soon became known as the go-to place for artisan pastries and sourdough bread in the Waterford harbour town.
Fergal first encountered sourdough as a young chef. Having undergone back surgery, he was moved to the pastry section in the hotel where he worked. While anyone who experimented with a sourdough starter during the pandemic may recall the lengthy process as painful, it is what draws Fergal to the craft.
“It’s a whole start-to-finish kind of experience, there are so many things to take into account: Air temperature, the different seasons and how it’s going to affect your sourdough starter.”
Ingredients used in the pastries and breads mostly come from their own smallholding, and local farms and gardens, or are foraged locally. The smallholding was born out of a desire to be self-sustaining, says Fergal.
“We started small about five or six years ago, growing a few spuds. Now, it’s snowballed, we have around 400 fruit trees from apple, fig and nectarines to native Irish cherry and a tunnel set up for strawberries and raspberries.
“This is our first full summer; we’re really trying to supply ourselves so that we don’t have to buy anything in.”
Fergal’s partner, Caitriona, studied nutrition and, as a team, they use as much organic products and processes as possible. They have a fully functional ecosystem underground on their land.
“We don’t rotate anything. Comfrey — high in potassium — seaweed from Tramore, and nettles, are the only fertilisers we use.”
Fergal and Catriona want to diversify people’s palates and even his white bread is not “a true white.” Packed with purple wheat wholemeal spelt and wholegrain, making fibre rich bread is essential to “everything we do,” says Fergal.
Long fermentation also makes it easier for our body to digest the bread, says Fergal.
Almost all Dún’s suppliers are Irish including Oak Forest Mills in Kilkenny, with Fergal highlighting their high protein content flour as a favourite among gym-goers.
Having a low carbon footprint doesn’t feel challenging to the couple who say that “there are so many amazing food producers on our doorstep.”
There was some talk of Dún’s premises being cursed — several previous businesses failed to survive — but Fergal and Caitriona are just getting started.

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