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Hunting Down the Waterford Blaa in Newfoundland (and a recipe for you to make it at home)

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Waterford Lane, in St John's Newfoundland

Waterford Lane, in St John’s Newfoundland

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.

Street art in St John's, Newfoundland, featuring fish (what we know as cod), a huge part of their culture

Street art in St John’s, Newfoundland, featuring fish (what we know as cod), a huge part of their culture

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.

St John's, Newfoundland. It was common to build houses on stilts, to cope with the dramatic surfaces of the land.

St John’s, Newfoundland. It was common to build houses on stilts, to cope with the dramatic surfaces of the land.

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.

A house on the Battery in St John's, Newfoundland

A house on the Battery in St John’s, Newfoundland

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.

Lori and her mother in law Regina

Lori and her mother in law Regina

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.

Proving the dough

Proving the dough

Proving the dough

Proving the dough

Dividing the dough into 8

Dividing the dough into 8

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.

Steeped tea

Steeped tea

Dusting the bread with extra flour

Dusting the bread with extra flour

 

Ready to taste

Ready to taste

I found them! Lori and her home baked blaas

I found them! Lori and her home baked blaas

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

Ingredients

500g extra strong white flour, plus extra for dredging
10g salt
10g butter
10g active dried yeast
10g sugar
275ml water, lukewarm

Method

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.

Enjoy!


With thanks to Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism, the Canadian Tourism Commission, Lori Butler, Regina McCarthy and Larry Dohey, for supporting me on my quest

Posted by

I like food. I like to make food. Eat food. Photograph food. Write about food. Mainly in London but when I am lucky or organised further afield.

38 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Hi there, I’m reading this great post in lovely Tramore and feel like rushing out to buy a few blaas. But wait, maybe I’ll try your recipe. The results look wonderful.

    Reply

  2. Reading this in bed…going to have a hungry dream tonight

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  3. Speaking of dressing and gravy, did you have fish and chips with dressing and gravy? The dressing and gravy are on top of the chips. As far as I know it’s a Newfoundland thing and when my friends go home they always have it. I tried it, but once was enough for me. :)

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  4. What a lovely story Niamh! It’s true, the Maritimes are very Irish, and their culture is still so tied to the sea and fishing. Sadly not so much actual fishing these days. I do have fond memories of your pork, relish and blaas from the Covent Garden market.

    The hot turkey sandwich, as we call the turkey/dressing/gravy/bread combo is a nationwide obsession. I had pretty much forgotten about it until I moved back.

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    • Thanks Erin! Yes, they are but especially Newfoundland. I have never been anywhere which had such striking similarities. Will definitely have one of those sandwiches with you in Vancouver sometime! x

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  5. What a wonderful long distance connection to something so close to your heart! And that’s real dedication hunting the blaas down like that!!!

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    • I am a touch obsessive about some things. Which works for what I do, but can be a head wreck ;) Thanks!

      Reply

  6. This is one of my favourite posts of yours. As an expat, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that food brings us together. Beautiful writing and a beautiful story. x

    Reply

  7. This is one of my favourite posts of yours. As an expat, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that food brings us all together. Beautiful writing and a beautiful story. x

    Reply

  8. My Great Grandfather came from Waterford to Massachussets, as a yound boy with his family, in the very late 1800s. I wonder if they might have had this bread…? Perhaps my Great-great-Grannie might have known how to bake it…? I suppose there’s no way to know now.
    But I may have to make some myslef to remember them by.
    Thanks for the nice thoughts and the delicious recipe.

    Reply

  9. How delightful! I must make these. I lived in Newfoundland for 5 months and found the people the wittiest on earth. Enjoy!

    Reply

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  11. I just shared your post with my Mom, who will be coming to Ireland for the first time in two weeks. She is curious about her roots, being a Mulley from Newfoundland/Cape Breton. My husband is from Tipperary and I think provenance (as well as his job) brought us to settle here in Waterford. She may just find what she’s been looking for! The blaa here is very similar to what we grew up with at home, and you’re right, the accent is so very similar. Next time you’re out East you must let me tour you around Cape Breton!

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    • This is so lovely to hear – thank you for sharing! I loved Newfoundland and will be back. I am also keen to get to Cape Breton, I have heard great things.

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  12. Just tried my hand at these today and, although they seem to have turned out great tastewise etc, they stuck to the bottom of the baking dish a bit. Would you say that it’s just a case of dusting the bottom of the dish with more flour next time, or is there a trick?

    Reply

    • Dust the tray heavily with flour. It could be the tray too. If you bake your bread on a baking stone – they aren’t that expensive and you can use untreated slates too (I would google that for details) – you will get fabulous crisp bases and they shouldn’t stick.

      Reply

  13. Thanks for illuminating the culinary connection between Waterford and Newfoundland. My mother, who is from St. John’s, enjoyed the “buns” immensely, especially hot from the oven, well anointed with Irish butter, and served with a nice hot cup of Red Rose. Heaven and nostalgia.

    Reply

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  15. I feel like I have been saved !!!!!! I’m from Waterford and living here in St. John’s for six months now and really miss my blaa s
    Would love to find Lori s bakery or even the name of the bar you visited ??
    Till then I shall defiantly try the recipie .
    Thanks

    Reply

    • Hi Dale! Lori doesn’t have a bakery anymore and I can’t remember the name of the pub, sorry. Lori is on twitter though, if you want to contact her there? @theislandchef‎ She may be able to help. As you can see from the post I had to work hard to find the blaas there at all but Lori definitely makes them.

      The blaa is still present but not baked as much, and people don’t know that it is actually a blaa that they are making. Hope you have some success :)

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  16. I plan to make these soon, thanks for the recipe. Are you sure that only ten grams of butter are needed? That seems like a very small amount for 500g flour.

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  17. I made the blaas this morning. They came out perfectly and were half gone before I could get the camera. Thanks again

    Reply

  18. Can’t wait to try this recipe. Have just been home to Waterford and my sister made lovely sausage blaas on Sat morning. I live in the UK and have just promised this recipe to a Restaurant owner for Paddy’s Day-yum yum. Thanks Niamh. Ger from Waterford

    Reply

  19. Hi Niamh

    ran out of Blaa’s here in Faithlegg,Co.Waterford!

    did a quick Google search for a recipe and found your’s.

    Blaa’s are cooling on a wire rack at present,look good and smell nice,

    look forward to trying them,thanks for posting the recipe!

    Reply

  20. Hi Niamh,

    We live in New Zealand, me a half/half Kiwi/Irish and my partner is Full Waterford Boy thru and thru. I am always making soda bread and potato farls for him and had yet to find a Blaa recipe. Finally stumbled upon this. I am going to make this this weekend and see if he approves.

    Thanks Sandra

    Reply

    • Well it is an authentic recipe (and I am from Waterford), so there is no reason why he shouldn’t! :)

      You should also try soda farls, as well as potato farls. I have a recipe for these in my book :)

      Reply

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