An Island Anecdote & Traditional Irish Soda Bread Recipe

I couldn’t believe my good fortune one day many years ago when a born and raised islander came up to me in the Spar parking lot offering me milk kefir grains. I had been wanting them but didn’t want to buy them. Just like plants for the garden, they’re much more special when received from a loving space which they’ve outgrown rather than purchased from a shop.

Because fermenting cultures reproduce and eventually one has to either give them away, throw them out, compost, or feed to one pet or the other, I believed they’d eventually come to me fortuitously. So, this was my day and when she said ‘Someone told me you might like these’ (I had told no one I was seeking them), I squealed with delight and gratefully accepted. Never did I dream someone on the island had any or I certainly would have made my desire known. Anyhoo, my hobby of fermenting was no secret and now I had kefir grains so I immediately put them to use.

kefir-grainsMy common sense was overshadowed by my ego because I remember feeling like a sort of fermenting pioneer here on the island. Obviously, I wasn’t. Even though there weren’t many people who were fermenting–I knew of none other than herself and most looked at me with the ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’ stare when I spoke of the ‘fermenting of’ versus ‘pickling of’ vegetables–those grains originated from somewhere, but where?

Truth, I didn’t find myself in wonder of this ever. Those days, I rarely went far from home and was solely focused on my very young and expanding family.

Several years pass by, which brings me to a couple years ago. By then, I had met some Eastern Europeans also living on the island who fermented vegetables, mostly sauerkraut or pickles. One day I’m january-2017-kefir-1in my kitchen bottling kombucha when a neighbour stops by unexpectedly. One thing leads to another and in my usual fervour to talk about all things fermenting, I introduce the subject of milk kefir. Before long, she’s saying it reminds her of something that grows here on the island called ‘buttermilk flower’ that she used years ago after receiving it from another neighbour of ours.

Oh. My. God. Foraging is another passion of mine and now I’m preoccupied with identifying this indigenous to the island plant. I immediately consult with Google. She must identify the ‘image’ so I can gather it myself—pretty sure I’m in the middle of an adrenaline rush at his point.

After more discussion it becomes clear; we’re both talking about the exact same thing, and, no, it doesn’t grow her on the island except in the kitchens of those who are culturing milk with it.

Since then I’ve found out that kefir grains were used by some of the islanders two generations ago, before the convenience of packaged milk products were available. Those who weren’t making their own butter, and therefore didn’t have the by-product of buttermilk readily available, could make their homemade soda bread by substituting kefir as the necessary acid ingredient.

I knew then that even better than trailblazing is the feeling of following in the footsteps of island ancestors. As I pass on my multiplying grains to others and they do the same, before very long an old tradition will be revived. Add to that the recent headlines touting ferments as the food trend of 2017 and how folks are becoming aware of the stellar health benefits that fermented/cultured foods possess, and I think it’s a safe bet that revival is what’s already happening.

20170112_124642_richtonehdrI also get to share with others the things I’ve learned through experimenting with kefir–it has many more uses in both sweet and savoury preparation, both in its natural and cooked state. There’s more to this story, but since this isn’t a book I’ll segue here to the second part of this blog post, my recipe for Irish soda bread, kefirs original use here on the island.

I remember falling in love with Irish soda bread years before I even moved here after eating it with a delicious bowl of homemade tomato soup at Nan Phaidi’s, a legendary cafe here on the island. One day in the market I saw a sister of the cafe’s owner, who also worked there, buying what was obviously the bread ingredients so I took a chance and requested the recipe from her. She happily obliged and then recited how she was used to making it, a recipe for making a dozen or so loaves at a time–‘3 bags of this, 3 cartons of that, etc’. I jotted it down and went on my way. I did the maths and worked it into manageable quantities for myself. Years later the original recipe was printed in Bread On The Table∼ Baking Traditions for Today by Valerie O’Connor. Yes, it’s that good.

There are dozens, if not more, different recipes and many use white flour asjanuary-2017-kefir-2 well as wholemeal. Many add eggs, butter, or oil. Some call for salt, some no salt. Brown or white sugar, honey, or treacle. Soft dough or liquidy–you see where I’m going with this; recipes are adjustable and most soda bread recipes out there have been adapted to suit the creative whimsy and palate of the individual baker. This explains why there are so many wonderful varieties throughout Ireland and around the world (and maybe not so wonderful, depending on your taste).

I’ve revised the original recipe by altering the amount of flour so I could use exactly one 2Kg bag, no measuring, just pour it all into the bowl. Therefore, I needed to reduce the amount of kefir, which replaces the buttermilk. I’ve also replaced a portion of the oil with honey. I make three 2 pound loaves at a time by multiplying times three this recipe for a single loaf.


  • 665 g/1.5 pounds coarse wholemeal flour
  • 100 g/ 3.5 oz/ 1/2 c wheat germ
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp bread soda/baking soda
  • 665 ml/ 22 oz kefir
  • 35 ml/ 2¼ Tb honey
  • 15 ml/ 1 Tb sunflower oil


  1. Gather ingredients
  2. Preheat oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas 5.
  3. Line or grease a 2 pound bread pan.
  4. Measure all dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl and combine together with a whisk; coarse wholemeal is not fine enough to go through a flour sifter. Using a whisk combines and aerates the same as a sifter would.
  5. Add in wet ingredients and fold with a spatula until ingredients are just combined.
  6. Pour into prepared pans immediately and place in the centre of the hot oven.
  7. Bake for 60 minutes, checking for doneness after 50 minutes.
  8. Rest for 10 minutes in pan then remove to a cooling rack.
  9. Have a slice or two while warm with (or without) whatever topping tempts you and finish the rest within two days. If freezing loaves, completely cool before wrapping airtight.

Happy baking and healthy eating everyone!


      • Eddy Winko says:

        Yes, although cabusta literally means cabbage, but I know you mean in the perogi 🙂 along with rehydrated wild mushrooms from the autumn harvest. We also use in a soup, a type of coleslaw and probably most famously in bigos, which is like a cabbage stew with meat and anything else to be honest. Everyone’s is different and of course the best 🙂


  1. I find it very interesting to hear the story from the island too, Melissa. I was gifted some Kefir years ago here in Spain, but my fridge and freezer died, so I need to throw the last out, as I had.
    I used to make Kefir mostly from goat’s milk, because cow milk are so tough to my stomach.
    Now I have found places to buy organic vegetables, so one day I will start to ferment too, thanks to your inspiration 🙂
    Take good care of yourself, dear friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Organic veg is definitely the best for fermenting (and not fermented, of course, 😀 ) When the time is right you will begin, this I am sure of. Would be great if there was a class or friend nearby who you could do it with. I have been enjoying a private chat with the women whom I shared kefir grains with. It feels good to have this conversation with them and know I have had a positive impact on their health, knowing, of course, it is all in their hands and I am just a vessel used to steer them in their chosen direction. Have you eaten them before or are you near a health store that might sell some sauerkraut, kimchi, or salsa? They are great first veg ferments. Ah well, enough for now. I could go on and on and on about fermenting!! Sleep well. Xx

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t seen those vegetables in our health shops here, but they have so many different kind. I will check up at your blog and recipes, when I feel ready to ogo on with the fermenting.
        I don’t know anyone here, who are doing much more than usual cooking here. Not many are even baking their own bread and bread are not cheap to buy in Spain either. Thank you for your support, Melissa 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. forcinglife says:

    Oh my god!!! I haven’t had time to read the whole thing yet…BUT YES! I’m doing 52 new things this year, one of them will be making soda bread (ironically I’m actually Irish) I highly recommend putting KerryGolf butter on it… it’s the best butter in the world! Wrote my first blog the other day…any feedback is welcomed if you have time. Thanks for the recipe!

    Liked by 1 person


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