The Universal Brown Bread

A side of brown bread, with butter packets

Brown bread is an important element of the meals in Ireland. A slice of brown bread will be served with nearly every meal, particularly lunch and dinner. We visited several towns and ate at several different restaurants or hostels, and each location incorporated brown bread into the meal. At the Valley House in Achill, slices of brown bread were served as an appetizer before the meal. The bread was put out in bowls along the table, alongside salads, and butter was placed beside them. We also ate lunch at several places where a slice of brown bread would be served alongside a bowl of soup. A vegetable soup could be purchased at the hotel restaurant on Inis Oirr, and this included brown bread and butter. Brown bread would also be used for sandwiches, as O’Brien’s shop in Ennis used brown bread for their turkey sandwiches.

Sandwich with brown bread, purchased in Ennis

When we visited Cnoc Suain, our host Dearbhail demonstrated how brown bread is made. It is different from regular white bread because it is not made with yeast. The ingredients include whole wheat and white flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The baking soda mixing with the buttermilk is what causes the dough to rise. Dearbhail explained the baking technique which causes the bread to be so fluffy and light: you must lift up the flour while it’s the bowl. You mix together the flours, soda, and salt, then create a well to pour in the buttermilk. Dearbhail recommended using your hands to mix the dough together in order to use less dishes, but you have to be sure not to knead or handle the dough too much. You then shape the dough into a circular form and cut a cross into it so the bread bakes all the way through. Other ingredients can also be added to the dough before it is mixed together. For example, Dearbhail explained that pieces of seaweed can be added to the bread in order to increase its nutritious value.

This type of bread is relatively simple to make, and judging by its frequent appearance at multiple pubs and restaurants, brown bread is a very versatile food.

Fish Out of Water

A sign posted on the toilet at Rowan Hostel in Ennis.

Travelling to an unknown country can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone. You often have to handle a new language, different cultural expectations, and much, much more. However, one might assume things would be relatively easy to understand in the bathroom.

My first indication that the plumbing systems in Ireland differed from the States was in the bathroom at the Park Inn right across the street from Shannon Airport. There were two buttons above the toilet to flush, and it was unclear whether you were supposed to push the smaller button to flush less amounts of human waste, the bigger button being for larger amounts. This aspect of the bathrooms would help to save water by using less amounts of water to flush, unless a larger amount is required. Although this system of two buttons is eco-friendly, it was unclear what the difference between the two buttons was.

The Larger or Smaller Button?

Even when I asked people who lived in Ireland, no one could give me a clear answer of the difference between the two buttons. Most assumed the larger button was for a larger flush, but a few suggested that the larger button was easier to press and therefore was for smaller, more frequent flushes. Because of the user’s confusion, particularly for someone who is from outside the country, he or she may end up pressing the bigger button even though it is not necessary.

 Another element of the bathrooms which differed from those in the US also concerned flushing. The toilets at the Ecovillage in Cloughjordan had a flush handle that appeared similar to ones in the US, but we discovered that this handle had to be pumped a couple times before the toilet would flush completely. You could also hold the handle down for longer if you required more water to flush the toilet. Again, this system conserves water by giving the user a certain amount of control over how much water is used to flush, but it also does not make this clear to the user. At first, a couple people at the Ecovillage thought the toilets were broken because they would not flush completely on the first pump. 

These differences in the plumbing systems of Ireland allow for the user to conserve water. Although it may not be clear at first to new users, the additional measures conserve small amounts of water which will aid a greater effort to help the environment.

A Community in Unity

Every country is made up of various communities. In Ireland, one unpopular style of community I experienced was an ecovillage in Cloughjordan. Our tour guide, Úna, told me that despite their eco-friendly efforts, “A lot of people move here more for the strong sense of community” versus a passion to help the environment. I found this interesting because previously, I assumed everyone who lived here did so because they were passionate about nature. In this community, people decide to not cut the grass excessively and ride a bike instead of driving. They also have community places where people can leave items they no longer had a use for, such as toys, movies, and crafts. This demonstrates a strong sense of closeness because people were comfortable sharing, repurposing, and donating their personal belongings without expecting anything in return.

The ecovillage knows the grass can always be longer on the other side.

Another example of the strong sense of community here was in the Cloughjordan pubs. People would sit in a circle and share their musical abilities by singing and playing instruments freely. They helped one another finish songs by either jumping in to sing a verse or accompanying an instrument. The community was supportive and open-minded, even towards new people. Anyone who wanted to sing or play music was encouraged to and received support afterward.

This farmer is working selflessly. It is his contribution to the community.

Also, the farmers demonstrate an understanding of community because their work is selfless. They work long, stressful hours in strenuous conditions to provide food and resources to the village. They make a low minimum wage pay that does not match the physical labor they exert.

The ecovillage loves and supports Mother Nature. People and animals here can rejoice unified in one community because every creature is respected. Even Pa’s Django Ecohostel composts food in an effort to keep the community in the best condition possible because that will benefit everyone. By the end of my time at the ecovillage, I learned that this population as well as Cloughjordan as a whole, both exhibit a strong and healthy sense of community through their efforts to make their home a prosperous environment for everyone.

Ireland is a complex country that holds many different types of communities, specifically an ecovillage that offers many benefits to the people who live there.

A Valid Salad

American diets feature high sugar, fat, and salt because people are constantly surrounded by overly processed food. People in the States expect their chips to be salty, burgers to be cheesy, and ice cream to be sugary. Even when it comes to salad, Americans find a way to incorporate the cheese, sugar, fat, and salt they crave. In Ireland, I have noticed the sweet treats are less sugary, the burgers are not as loaded with cheese, and the chips are less salty.

What really impressed me was the side salad I ordered at Birr Castle. When I initially ordered my sandwich at the counter, the waitress told me that my sandwich would come with a “fresh side salad.” 

My first experience with side salads in Ireland.

In terms of first acquiring salads, I noticed a difference between Ireland and the States. In America, if a person orders a lunch sandwich, chances are that sandwich comes with a heap of fries. If an American does go out of their way to order a side salad, the salad portion would be much larger than what I experienced at Birr Castle. All of the lunch sandwiches at Birr Castle came with side salads. The portions of the salads were much smaller than portions of side salads in the States. Also, American salads tend to be drenched in a thick ranch dressing but at Birr Castle, the salad was coated with a light, simple oil dressing. In terms of the majority content of the salad, American salads usually include iceberg lettuce which is essentially all water and drastically lacks in nutrients when compared to other collard greens. The content of the salad at Birr Castle consisted of dark nutrient-rich greens, cucumbers, carrots, and onions. The toppings in American salads are often times coated with shredded cheese and garlic croutons. These toppings are obviously not nearly as healthy as the additions of vegetables in the Irish salad.

Even the prawn salad I had for lunch on Inis Oirr was modest and appropriate. It had dark, leafy greens, plump tomatoes, a fresh lemon and a healthy amount of dressing.

My first experience having a Prawn salad as a lunch meal in Ireland.

Both the salads I tried in Ireland were much healthier in terms of content and portion size when compared to American salads.

My overall observation in terms of Irish food compared to American food is: Ireland offers more healthy and fresh dietary options than America.

Bird is the Word

A habitat is a natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or other organisms. It can be a living creature’s both external and internal environments. A habitat can be manifested in many ways such as how a person decorates a home, the setting a bird chooses to nest in, as well as the micro-environments within an existing system. The birds on Inis Oirr have an interesting habitat. On our tour John Rattigan told us, “This island has less habitat variation and some of the birds migrate here for the weather during certain seasons. On this island, however, there is less biodiversity which means isolation.” A bird’s environment here does not include mountains, lakes, or the company of other animals because this small island does not have a variety of resources to offer.

Birds use the island’s resources and view their landscape as “home.”

In terms of the types of birds one could find on Inis Oirr, swallows migrate to this island from Africa to breed. They also fly close to the ground because they are visually attracted to rotting seaweed. Another type of bird is the Great Black Backed Gull which is a kind of seagull that is very powerful. One example of their power is how they can easily hold crabs in their mouths. For other types of birds who do not breed, they only come by Inis Oirr as a stopping point on their journey to another destination. There are two kinds of bird populations on this island. Both kinds can be very social. The small crow even makes a jack noise to attract attention from others. Other birds one can find here include the hooded crow, woodland bird, and other singing birds. A large singing bird can be best identified by the crest it displays on its head. However, these birds are scarce on the island. 

Sea campions, clints and grikes, and seaweed are just a few of the elements these birds experience.

When considering the habitat for birds on Inis Oirr, there are many elements to analyze. These elements can help explain why micro-environments work in the way that they do. On an island, the wildlife is exposed to weather conditions that can vary drastically when compared to where the birds migrated from.

The bird habitats on Inis Oirr offer a limited environment and resources so this fact does have an influence on the numbers and types of birds that can be found here.

Food Blog

Spar and Centra, two names I’m not truly familiar with but will have to get used to if I want to buy my own food while in Ireland. These are two of the more popular markets you will find in Ireland. These stores remind me a lot of IGA’s in America; they are small but have essentially everything you need without the variation of brands. One type of food in particular caught my eye, the eggs. They were on the shelves! My first thought was that they accidentally put them there while the workers were making room for them in the fridges. There was so many boxes of them though and they were organized so I really had to think about it to myself. Suddenly a worker walks by so I decide to ask, “excuse me MS, are these eggs still good to eat, they are warm and on the shelve?” She looked at me with a more puzzled look than I was probably giving off and said, “the eggs do not go in the fridge, they go on the shelves” and then she just walked away. It was then I realized that common food storage in America is not the same everywhere in the world.

I decided to buy the eggs regardless of how they were stored because I love to have my two over easy in the morning; however, it prompted me to do some research when I got back to the Hostel. I did not realize how Irish eggs were mostly farmed locally while eggs in supermarkets in America were farmed on bigger corporate farms, with upwards of 3,000 chickens laying eggs each and every day. After reading this fun fact I decided to look at the box holding my eggs I just purchased for 2 euro. It read “freshly laid by hens with freedom to roam freely on organic pastures”

Local Eggs in Ireland

This made me think about egg cartons I see in stop & shop and how I tend to buy the 30 pack of eggs each week, it made me realize that there was no way the farmers in America let their chickens roam free each and every day to feed the United States population. I began to realize that the eggs I buy in America aren’t the same quality I’d be able to get in Ireland because the chickens in America weren’t treated the same. This made me think about where else I could buy eggs from that the animals were treated better and it made me think about the Farmers Market on Metacom Ave in Bristol, RI. When I get back to America, I’m only getting locally farmed eggs!

 

Powering Ireland

Ireland is an interesting place when you look at the way they consume and create their energy. In America the main source of energy is oil and natural gas which are also burned to create electricity. This is something that so far from what we have seen in rural Ireland is not regarded as the same way to keep a home warm. Turf is a popular source of energy because it is virtually everywhere in Ireland. Turf is harvested from bog lands, which over the course of history compresses and creates a carbon based product that can be burned for energy. This is not a very environmentally practice, as doing so releases carbon back into the atmosphere, which is not good for our o-zone or life on Earth. Ireland, stores about 3% of the world’s carbon. Preserving these fields are in our best interest because when carbon is burned it releases a toxin call Carbon Monoxide. Turf farming isn’t a large scale problem created by farmers in the countryside burning it for personal use on their property, the problem is the large corporations that come into Ireland and buy up land to farm the turf from the bog all at once. A farmer in Ireland traditionally uses around 3-4 turf bricks every 15 minutes when trying to keep the fire going. This doesn’t seem like a lot but when you multiply that by the hour they use 384 slabs an hour and 140,000 a year. This seems like a lot but that is if they keep the fire constantly lit throughout the whole entire year, which is not true for everyone in Ireland. Turf farming is a cheap way to heat homes in Ireland and with trees not being abundant on the island, residents do not have many other viable options to use to heat their homes. Traditional farmers using this source of fuel will never be able to clear a field in their lifetime, but corporations can tear up a 50 meters by 35 meters field in under a day according to our friends in the Killary sheep farm.  This practice has pushed Ireland to try and push back on corporations having the ability to harvest turf from bogs. One type of clean sustainable energy  that can be seen as an alternative is wind turbines, in specific we saw the models known as kw3 and kw6’s.  The smaller model, the kw3, gives out an average of 4,000kW/hrs while the larger size the kw6 gives out around 8,000kW/hrs. This is the greenest way to create energy because winds is natural and abundant in Ireland and the creation and use of these devices are not harming the environment while turf farming is. Most of the turbines we saw were along the Wild Atlantic Way but they were also seen  inlet from the coast. These are great examples of clean energy because they have a low carbon footprint which is great for the environment and allows people to realize there are alternatives to traditional practices still being used today.

Ask Pete: Should People Burn Peat?

Ireland offers different options when it comes to fuel and energy. One hot topic is the burning of turf. Turf is blocks of peat from ancient bogs that for centuries rural residents have dried and burned to heat their homes.

Because turf is a sponge for CO2, people have mixed opinions on whether or not this fuel should be utilized. For centuries, people living in rural neighborhoods have burned turf to heat their homes. Others, including Anthony, our guide from the Ceide Fields said: “Burning turf is negative for the environment because turf holds CO2 so when it is burned, it releases those damaging qualities into the air.” Turf retains water, acid, and moisture so people need a lot of this resource to last throughout winter. Peat is an important resource to consider when looking at energy options inside and outside of Ireland but it is also necessary to note that there are many pros and cons to burning this fuel. No one can deny the beneficial and damaging effects of burning turf and how those effects alter the environment.

A student is hard at work, learning tips and tricks for collecting turf.

One location where peat can be found is the Atlantic blanket bog land. This prehistoric landscape is where environmentalists can find Sphagnum moss, also referred to as peat moss. It grows a mere one millimeter every year and despite its slow, gradual growth, this moss does not die down. It does not die down because of the collected water, which comes from rain. The moss transforms to turf, which is spread on the ground and the sun naturally dries it out over the hot summer time. This prepares the resource to be burned for the winter time.

Sphagnum moss is acidic and does a great job at preserving everything!

The turf controversy aside, Ireland also demonstrates an understanding and practice of energy conservation. One effort Ireland makes towards energy conservation was demonstrated in the hotel rooms in Spiddal. In order to turn on the hallway, bedroom, and bathroom lights, the room key needed to be slid into the socket by the door. This invention makes an effort to conserve energy by making sure lights are not when a person is not home. Loads of energy is wasted by people who leave lights on when they are not home.

Altogether, Ireland makes efforts to conserve energy and use their resources wisely, although these efforts are not perfect and can be always improved.