Do I need to reintroduce you to the blaa? I probably do. The humble bread roll from Waterford, it is fluffy, square and white with a flour crust, and we are a little obsessed with it. It is thought that it came to Waterford with the Huguenots who called it blanc (because it was a simple white roll), but with our accent and a little time to erode it, it became a blaa.
It is a simple bread, slightly sweet with a little sugar and fluffy with a little butter. Allowed to rise slowly, it is the perfect vehicle for our traditional (and my favourite) chicken and stuffing sandwich. Also, for the occasional tayto (cheese & onion) crisp sandwich with butter to cushion the crisp.
There used to be 60 bakeries in Waterford that baked the blaa, and it never really left it. You never used to see the blaa anywhere else. This has changed recently, in no small part due to the efforts of the remaining bakers, now only 4, who are trying to protect it and have applied for a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). To apply there needs to be at least 3 producers and we are getting low. As a result there has been some press, and I have seen the blaa pop up here and there a bit more.
I used to make and sell them at my market stall in Covent Garden 4 years ago, where I made and sold my own food. Not content with doing anything that wouldn’t push me as far as possible and drive me (seemingly) close to deaths door, every day I would make a number of different dishes, always from scratch. Soups, stews, tarts, salads and sandwiches (and all on my own). I would get up at 5am and bake blaas fresh every morning, then serve them filled with overnight roast shoulder of pork and spiced apple relish, or spiced overnight roast shoulder of lamb, with aubergine and tomato relish. They were a hit and I always had a queue, so I ensured that these recipes made it into my cookbook, Comfort & Spice.
I was speaking once with my father about Nova Scotia (as I have a good friend from there who I was visiting). He, previously a master cutter at Waterford Crystal, knew some ex colleagues who had moved to Nova Scotia to set up a crystal company there. And somewhere along the way, my father had discovered that they made the Waterford blaa in Newfoundland, and only there. That sounded familiar.
That had my attention and it has been in my head ever since. Food is culture, it tells you a lot about where you come from and the land itself. Newfoundland has many Waterford connections, not least in their accent which can be very similar to my own. It turns out that this is for a strong reason, Waterford city used to be the headquarters of the seasonal cod fishery in Newfoundland dating back to the 16th century. Many people from Waterford and surrounds travelled to Newfoundland to work in the cod industry as seasonal workers (mainly between 1763 and 1830) and lots stayed on. Their mark is still there, there are many Powers, Barrys, Butlers, McCarthys, in fact there are over 1300 Irish names on Newfoundland now.
I was fascinated and determined to seek the blaa out. I was sure it must be there but my initial research proved fruitless. I contacted the tourism board and a local historian, both super helpful, they tried but could not find my blaa. I was sure it must be there, so I took a risk and thought, if I can find a baker, I will visit. I was sure that they were making them, and that they have just given them a different name.
On my first day in St John’s, I popped into a local pub for a bowl of chowder, and served next to it was what I would know as a blaa. AH-HA! I knew it! What is it? Just a bread roll. But it isn’t. Not to me and most of Waterford at least. The next day I was meeting Lori Butler, a local baker and chef with a passion for Newfoundland food and recipes. We had communicated over email, and Lori had said that she made a bread roll, but wasn’t sure if it was a blaa. I was now fairly certain that it was.
We started early, in Waterford Valley in St John’s. We got the dough ready and left it for a first rise. Like most home home cooks, Lori does things by eye and by feel, using recipes that have passed through the generations. We left the dough to double gently and then portioned it into 8, rolling it in flour and leaving it to rise, all cosy and cuddled together, as blaas are.
I was now fairly certain that we were making blaas and I was excited. We allowed it rise again, gently on the side and then dusted it with a final flour flourish. We baked it, we tore them apart and I had a bite. This is a blaa, I declared! I knew it! I have found it. It was a little bigger than normal, but it was the very same bread. I was even happier when I discovered the roast turkey and dressing sandwich, which is similar to our roast chicken and stuffing sandwich except that here they pour warm gravy on also. I am taking that back with me. (Dressing in Newfoundland is stuffing made with savoury, in place of our thyme). They drink steeped tea too, something I always associate with my childhood in Ireland.
Lori had learned her bread recipe from her mother who had learned it from her mother in turn. I brought some with me to give to some other Newfoundlanders who all agreed that they had remembered their mothers making them too.
Here is to history and culture, the kindness of strangers, the food that brings us all together, and a humble little bread that travelled to the other side of the Atlantic and stayed the course.
My Blaa Recipe
be sure to have it with roast chicken, stuffing and gravy – OR – and you have my permission, some tayto crisps and butter ;)
Makes 8 blaas
500g extra strong white flour, plus extra for dredging
10g active dried yeast
275ml water, lukewarm
Dissolve the yeast and sugar into water. Ensure that the water is warm to touch, not cold or hot. Leave for 10 minutes. It should get nice and frothy, indicating that the yeast is alive and well.
Rub the butter, flour and salt together. Add the wet to dry ingredients and mix until combined. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. It will go from rough to a little shiny and will be much easier to handle.
Proof for at least 45 mins in a bowl covered in clingfilm in a warm part of your kitchen until the dough doubles in size. Remove from the bowl and knock back, pushing the air out the dough. Rest for 15mins. (The short rest times gives the gluten time to relax, making shaping easier).
Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and place side by side, close together, in a baking dish that will just accomodate them. Cover with a generous layer of flour and leave covered to the side.
Proof for 50 minutes until they have again doubled in size.
Bake for 15-20mins at 210c until they sound hollow when you tap them at the bottom.
With thanks to Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism, the Canadian Tourism Commission, Lori Butler, Regina McCarthy and Larry Dohey, for supporting me on my quest