There are many ‘versions’ of the story of St. Patrick. Given the time of year, I thought I should clarify the situation and give you the cold hard facts about the man. The first thing we know is that he was Welsh. This we know by the type of crosier he carried. There are rumours that he might have been a Scotsman but any sheep farmer knows that the Scottish crozier has a very different head to the Welsh. Scottish sheep have a thicker necks than Welsh and as a result, the Scottish crozier has a more open crook, making it useless for snake scooping. St. Patrick hunted snakes with the aid of a dalmatian hound. In fact, the great Irish patron saint named one of the three (for there are only three) traditional Irish foods after the dog.
Side note on traditional Irish food: For the record, the other two traditional Irish foods are the McDonald’s, brought here by a clown who escaped servitude in a travelling circus and the Doner Kebab, introduced to our native shores by Ismael, an exotic Eastern whose traditional kebab shop is now run by the 27th generation of his family on Dublin’s Baggot Street. These two rich Irish traditions are kept alive by today’s world-famous Irish gourmand generation.
The story goes that as a baby, Patrick had developed a pathological fear of and hatred for snakes, having witnessed his father being eaten by a (now extinct) Welsh Vineyard Python. These beasts terrorised the populations of the Welsh wine-producing regions during the 5th and 6th centuries. In fact, their presence caused the total collapse of that native industry and to this day, wine is not produced on any significant scale in Wales.
Fearing for the child’s life, Patrick’s mother fled to Ireland and took up with a shamrock farmer. Patrick was brought into the business on the sales end of things. He was expert at selling the shamrock to peasants, pointing out the sign of the Holy Trinity in the three leafed plant. When not selling the shamrock Patrick (for he was not a saint at the time) spent a lot of his time developing two other strands of the family business, baking a plain soda bread (a very Welsh tradition) and producing currants by drying the native Irish red and white grapes by the fire.
On one such occasion, while Patrick sat at the kitchen table, preparing a dough, his faithful dalmatian, saw a snake slithering across the floor. The dog, being as fearful of snakes as his master, jumped on to the table, knocking a jar of sultanas into a bowl of prepared dough. “Well spotted, Dog.” Cried the young Patrick as he scooped the offending snake with the crozier and threw it into the fire.
Being Welsh, Patrick would not waste the dough so he mixed in the sultanas and baked the first ever such loaf, which he named after the incident by calling it Spotted Dog.
With the back story complete, here’s the recipe handed down through the generations to my grandmother, a direct descendant of both St. Patrick and Cúchulainn, the mythical Irish warrior, but, that’s another tale.
- 460 grammes of plain flour
- 350 ml of buttermilk or ordinary milk and a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice.
- 110 grammes of mixed sultanas and raisins
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of salt
First, get the oven up to 220º C. The rest of the preparation takes about 5 minutes so do this in advance. Sieve the flour into a large bowl.
Side note on flour sieving: This practice was first introduced, not to prevent lumpiness in breads but to remove snake scales. Back in the day, Irish snakes used to sleep in flour sacks and their discarded scales could get stuck between the teeth, if not removed through sieving.
Then measure out the milk.
Then add the lemon juice (We both know you are not going to bother buying buttermilk).
Add the baking powder and salt to the flour.
Break in the egg, add about 2/3 of the milk and gently fold together into a nice, light dough. This is pretty messy, use one hand, keeping the other free for adding more milk as needed. You will probably not need it all. But, better safe than sorry.
Add the currants and mix them in, gently. Turn it out on to a floured surface.
Transfer to an oven tray and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200 and bake for a further 35 minutes. Remove, using a tea towel (That’s traditional too) and place it on a wire rack to cool.
When it’s cool, break it or slice it into pieces. Slather them with butter and enjoy a real St. Patrick’s Day tradition, handed down from St. Patrick, through our family to me.
Epilogue: Following on from the snake in the kitchen incident, St. Patrick had a fight with his father in law and was banished from the shamrock business. He went on to become a leading figure in the environmental clean up business, specialising in vermin infestations. It is rumoured that his company rid Ireland of not only snakes but also the Wombat. The latter establishing itself in Australia by hiding out on Viking ships that originally colonised that continent. But that, as they say, is another story altogether.