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

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
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Week 7 at the Market and a Recipe for Blaas

blaa

I can’t quite believe I’ve just typed Week 7 at the market, have I really been there 7 weeks? And I am but one day away from week 8. For something that happened organically and was quite unplanned save for the first week, it’s become quite a feature in this life of mine. Less major dramas and stress, there’s a routine in place at last, although I will continue to vary the produce to keep it interesting for me and for you.

There was one minor stress last week relating to transport to the market, namely it didn’t arrive, so apologies to anyone that got down there early to discover that I wasn’t there. I felt very bad about that. Onwards and upwards, I’ll ensure that doesn’t happen this week. I normally leave with enough buffer time to handle traffic etc. but if the cab doesn’t turn up, well, there’s nothing I can do about that. What’s that you say? Learn to drive? Buy a car? All in good time, all in good time.

The pork loin was popular as always and we were down to our last sandwich by 3pm. The bread sold out earlier than this and we had to top up with some lovely bread from fellow stall holders The Flour Station (they’re excellent – do check them out). There were a couple of new things this weektoo, two tarts. A potato, bacon and camembert tart and caramelised onion and goats cheese tartlets. The onions were caramelised in butter for over an hour and were rich and delicious. I struggled not to eat them all, a dual challenge last week as I struggled to avoid the crispy crackling which tempts me every week and, now also, the caramelised onions.

The crackling brought with it some bother last week. It is very crisp and tempting, glistening and winking at passers by from the stall, and several people requested some, some for free, and others tried to buy. There is never enough crackling, and every sandwich must have some, so I had to refuse, prompting one bizarre response from one girl who expected me to give it to her for free, stating quite crankily that I must be psychically very voluptuous. Eh?! As always though, most people were lovely. One couple had the sandwich then came back for some tart and prosecco, and then some more prosecco. My kind of people!

My bread at the stall has attracted much comment, and the recipe has been requested several times. Having made it several times, and feeling fairly confident in it, it’s time to share it. To recap, a blaa is a traditional bread made almost exclusively in Waterford, the county in Ireland where I grew up. I’ve been told that it’s also made in Newfoundland, as many people from Waterford emigrated there during the famine in the mid 19th century and brought the recipe with them. It’s light and soft and quite fluffy, I don’t know why it’s not more widely known. Sadly, I don’t know any bakers in Waterford, but I found a recipe on wikipedia of all places, and tweaked that a little so that I could use dried yeast. I followed it to the letter the first few times and also used fresh yeast. The dried yeast works perfectly fine and is easier to source so this is what I use now.

A word about yeast, it’s a living thing and it is possible to kill it, so ensure that the water is only lukewarm. Lukewarm to wake it up and start it reproducing, hot water will kill it, and kill your bread. Sugar feeds it and gets it going. Most recipes don’t call for sugar but this one does, and gives it a nice subtle sweetness as well as really livening the yeast.

The recipe takes some time but is worth it. Do ensure that that you knead the dough thoroughly, for 10 minutes or so. Also ensure that you sift the flour and introduce air this way. These steps are both key to producing a light bread.

Enjoy, hope you like it. Makes 8 blaas.

Ingredients

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

Method

1. Dissolve yeast and sugar into water. Ensure that the water is warm, not cold or hot. Leave for 10 minutes. It should get nice and frothy, indicating that the yeast is alive and well.
2. Sieve dry ingredients, introducing air.
3. Rub butter and dry mixture together.
4. Add wet to dry ingredients, mix until combined. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. It will go from rough to a little shiny
5. Proof for 45 mins in a bowl covered in clingfilm in a warm part of your kitchen. 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).
6. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball.
7. Rest for 5mins, covered.
8. Roll out to an round shape and place the balls side by side in a square baking dish (that has some flour on) to proof. Dredge with flour again .
9. Final proofing for 50mins. Nearly there! Dredge with a little extra flour.
10. Bake for 15-20mins at 210c.