A traditional Ulster Fry loaded with freshly baked potato bread and soda farls is hard to beat for a hearty breakfast, especially on a Saturday. Eggs, thick pork sausages, dry-cured bacon, mushrooms, tomato and traditional breads are my preference. But not black pudding or hash browns and I certainly wouldn’t spoon baked beans all on my plate.
This love of traditional breads led me recently to link up with Mark Douglas, the Dromore, County Down resident who’s known throughout Northern Ireland, many parts of the Republic and even in London as the Krazi Baker for his griddle baked traditional Northern Irish breads.
His speciality is “anything that can be baked freshly on a griddle”. All his freshly baked breads are made without yeast or preservatives.
As well as rekindling interest in potato bread and soda farls, Mark, a father of two, is the master of other local breads such as treacle farls, fruit sodas, veda rolls, scones and especially potato apple, a local delicacy which has won him prestigious UK Great Taste Awards.
And he’s added innovations to his portfolio, including grilled bacon and cheese and chorizo soda breads. He’s also developed on-trend sourdough and foccacia breads.
But back to the traditional Northern Irish breads he bakes on a hot griddle without any additives whatsoever.
It’s easy to see … and taste … why his potato and soda breads are best enjoyed fresh from the griddle. His weekly appearances at Ards and Carrickfergus markets and Comber on the first Thursday of the month are hugely popular with shoppers.
He’s also teamed up with Mervyn Kennedy of Kennedy Bacon in Omagh, another award-winning artisan, to offer sizzling bacon sodas at agricultural events such as Clogher Valley Show. He uses Kennedy’s bacon in his cheese and bacon sodas.
And he’s long been a feature – a magnet for visitors – at the immensely successful Food NI Food Pavilion at the RUAS Show at Balmoral Park. He’s seen shoppers there using his freshly baked sodas with cooked sausages from Cookstown for a tasty eat-on-the-go snack!
His stand was among the most popular in the Taste the Greatness presentation by Food NI, Invest NI, the Department for Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise and TourismNI at Borough Market in London. He even created a unique ‘black
bread’ for the Game of Thrones epic.
It was interest in griddle baking at these shows from shoppers that led him to launch Northern Ireland’s first bakery school dedicated to traditional breads.
“I originally began griddle baking at markets and shows to revive interest in potato bread, soda farls and potato apple,” he explains.
“Griddle baking skills had begun to disappear here, particularly among younger shoppers with the decline in the type of traditional home bakeries where I had baked for almost three decades,” he adds.
“What I wanted to do at markets was to revive interest in the breads and to show people how to bake them at home. I found people were really interested in how the breads could be made easily from the best local ingredients.
“Potato bread, for instance, is our oldest way of using up leftover potatoes which were once a mainstay in local homes. It’s such a simple bread to bake on a hot plate from warm mashed potatoes, butter, plain flour and a pinch of salt,” he adds.
“It’s just as easy to bake soda bread, treacle farls, wheaten bread and potato apple. Apples are plentiful here. We’ve great butter and flour. Abernethy Butter, for instance, is renowned throughout the UK for its quality and outstanding taste,” he continues.
He used Abernethy Butter in traditional butter shortbread which won him a Great Taste Award.
The flour is from Morton’s in Belfast, the cheese for flavoured sodas is Dale Farm’s award-winning cheddar and the chorizo is from Ispini Charcuterie in Aughnacloy.
The decision to set up the school, he says, “is the logical extension of that campaign to promote traditional breads”. He shows bakery school ‘students’ how to master griddle baking skills. It’s a real hands-on experience and a fun evening aided by his droll sense of humour.
And he’s a patient instructor with a wealth of knowledge of the bakery trade and its history here. Participants can eat their creations slathered with butter on-site or take them home for family and/or friends to enjoy.
He also shows the small classes, usually around six people, how to produce contemporary breads, especially focaccia and sourdough. Furthermore, he has plans to introduce a course on making a Christmas cake in response to requests from participants keen to make their own at home.
“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by people asking how to bake their own Christmas cakes. It’s another skill in decline and it’s very rewarding when participants wish to expand their expertise after taking part in a class,” he adds.
The interest in home baking, he continues, is also the outcome of popular TV shows such as the Great British Bake-off.
“Consumers, too, are keen to know about what’s in their food nowadays. As well as stimulating interest in cooking and home baking, this trend is also benefitting other artisan producers here which offer transparency and provenance,” he says.
Transparency, heritage, provenance and quality are what underpins Krazi Baker’s successful artisan business and his new bakery school.