Frank O'Kelly Written by Frank O'Kelly

Ireland’s winter foods: sugar applications from across the Irish Sea

This is the first blog of our new series focusing on seasonal sugar applications from across the globe, starting with one of the UK’s neighbours. Ireland boasts a rich food heritage, with pure sugars playing an important role in the production of many of the nation’s most popular foods. In this blog, we explore how pure sugars and syrups are used in some of Ireland’s favourite sweet and savoury winter foods.

Different types of breads

A wide range of breads are highly popular within Ireland, and their popularity is somewhat unique to the nation. Here, we have outlined those breads most distinguished by their unique flavours and explained the role pure syrups play in developing these flavours.

Veda bread
Veda bread is a type of malted bread that is a relatively contemporary commercial product. It is said to have been invented approximately a century ago when the housekeeper of a Dundee farmer made bread using wheat that had become damp and sprouted, consequently resulting in malted wheat. While these claims have not been officially validated, it is certainly true that the production of Veda bread has evolved since then, with the product also gaining wider popularity further west in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

C7X2K9 veda bread loaf a malted bread sold in northern ireland.

Refiners syrup gives Veda bread its rich and sweet taste, as well as its chewy texture. 

The product is dark brown in appearance, has a unique rich flavour, and a moist and chewy texture. It is primarily eaten as warming winter toast with butter or cheese on top. Individual Veda bread manufacturers use different pure syrups to develop subtly different end results, with malt extract, refiners syrup, black treacle and molasses acting as the most popular sugar constituents. In these applications, refiners syrup develops the sweetest taste, molasses the strongest.

Treacle soda bread
Soda bread is another type of bread that is highly popular in Ireland. Like Veda bread, though, soda bread was not invented in Ireland. Instead, it has gained in popularity in Ireland for the past two hundred years, leading to it being perceived as traditional Irish food. Its heritage dates to a time before modern rising agents were available, which meant that sodium bicarbonate was used as the leavening agent. Recipes vary depending on where and when they originate, but buttermilk is usually a core ingredient as it reacts with the sodium bicarbonate to form a bubble that helps the product rise.

Modern Irish soda bread is often made with additional flavours such as winter spices or raisins, and often contains a natural sweetener, usually treacle. This serves not only as a sweetener that easily disperses without changing the texture of the dough, but it also acts as a humectant to keep the bread fresh. Furthermore, treacle’s more rounded flavour profile means it is usually better suited to this application than molasses.

Traditional Irish Soda Bread Made For St. Patrick's Day Served On Wooden Table

The rough texture of this hearty loaf contrasts nicely with the rounded flavour of treacle.

Soda bread also requires a cross indentation on the top which, according to Irish folklore, allows fairies to escape the bread. This cross also provides an excellent marker when slicing to sell or serve.

Barmbrack is a different style of bread that is uniquely popular in Ireland. Some would argue that it is a fruitcake or an Irish Tea Cake, but its Irish language name translates to speckled bread and, as a result, it is more apt to liken it to the Welsh bara brith. In essence, barmbrack is a dense, fruity loaf which provides excellent fuel to help stay warm on a cold day.

Barmbrack has two seasonal traditions. The first is when it is produced for Halloween when an item is hidden in the bread and whoever finds it is said to be lucky. The second is when, in some areas of Ireland, it is produced for New Year’s Eve as part of a tradition to ward off poverty and starvation.

Barmbrack traditional Irish teacake made for Halloween

Barmbrack is a uniquely popular fruit loaf packed full of flavour.

The fruit in barmbrack is traditionally soaked in Irish whiskey and tea before being mixed into the cake batter which contains soft brown light sugar. This sugar has a more mellow flavour than the loaf’s other ingredients, enabling the flavours of the soaked fruit and spices to stand out more. Soft brown light sugar also acts as a natural humectant, holding in the moisture of the fruit to keep the loaf fresher for longer.

Sweet Irish foods

There is a wide range of highly popular sweet foods that we could explore in the next section. We have chosen a couple of our favourites that are popular in Ireland all year round, but better suited to wintertime consumption.

Porter cake
Porter cake is named after the porter style of beer which is used as the cake’s core ingredient. However, porter cake can be produced with stouts as well. While these cakes are sold and consumed throughout the year, and notably as a means of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on 17 March, their rich flavour is best suited to the winter months.

brown moist thick Irish porter cake

Irish porter cake can be produced using either a porter or a stout as the core ingredient. 

Porter cake is a rich, chunky fruitcake which relies on light cane muscovado sugar to ensure an equal spread of flavour and dried fruit throughout, with the sugar constituent’s fine grain size also adding volume. Light cane muscovado sugar retains some molasses from its partial refining process, and these natural toffee characteristics subtly complement the rich flavour of the porter or stout.

Apple tart
Apple tart is a traditional winter favourite in Ireland, served hot throughout the colder months of the year. Of course, it is a pastry case filled with a mixture of cooked apple, demerara sugar, butter, cinnamon and raisins, which are often soaked in Irish whiskey beforehand. Demerara sugar dissolves easily and adds a mellow sweetness without overpowering the flavour of the apples or whiskey.

Slice of Irish apple cake on plate

Apple tarts are best served hot with cream. 

A pastry lid is added, and the tart is baked and then served with a savoury topping which is typically a mix of muscovado sugar, sea salt and lemon. Dark cane muscovado sugar is used here as its rich flavour complements the tartness of the lemon and the sting of the salt. Apple tarts are popular as puddings in restaurants, snacks in coffee shops and are an easy dessert to bring home from the supermarket.

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