We all have our comfort foods—mine is bread. White bread was a staple of my Irish childhood—the sliced pan, as it was known. It made excellent toast fingers for dipping in soft boiled eggs, or for spreading with honey, or munching with a heap of baked beans.
When I was a little kid my mother and her friends went through a hippie phase—transcendental meditation, yoga, lentils, you know the kind of thing. The upside was delicious homemade yogurt and yeast bread. That distinct sour yeasty smell when you took a big sniff of crusty baguette hot out of the oven still lingers. Later, she made wonderful, dense brown soda bread with a dollop of sticky treacle added for sweetness.
At Granny’s house, the bread came from Eileen’s, the tiny corner shop. You bought an uncut loaf, big as a doorstep, and so fresh it could get up and dance a jig. It was the perfect bed for a slab of bright yellow salty butter from the farm down the road. You had to watch out for the collie dog though, he was a nipper. And of course you had to top it off with Granny’s raspberry or gooseberry jam.
My other grandmother allowed me the treat of butter and peanut butter on my bread. But my abiding memory is of my grandfather’s breakfast ritual. When we came downstairs he was already seated at the table in a low-slung armchair, hair neatly combed, his thin body all jutting angles of knees and elbows. Arranged in front of him were his plate of toast, his gold-colored teapot and mug, and a book perched on a stand he’d made specifically for reading at mealtimes. His chin hovered no more than an inch or two above all this. But the beauty of the arrangement was that it allowed him—ever a fastidious man—to eat and read without taking his eyes off his book, and with no fear of crumbs cascading down his cardigan.
When I was seven we went to live on the Greek island of Corfu. The strange new foods were a shock to my bland Irish palette. Luckily, the coarse bread (an artisanal country loaf in today’s parlance) made by the village baker was delicious. My sisters and I would get up early and gallop through the narrow, whitewashed streets to arrive in time to watch the loaves being pulled from the oven on long wooden paddles. The bread never made it home in one piece. On days when we went filming with my parents for the documentaries they made on the island, we would take along a picnic lunch. In a shady olive grove we’d listen to the cicadas zithering, eating chunks of bread doused in green olive oil and topped with sweet tomato slices and slabs of salty feta.
My first year in college, I’d come home late at night, starving, awash with experiences from my new adult world, yet still craving childhood comforts, and make myself a round of hot-buttered toast and marmalade.
Bread is still one of the great joys of my life. One of my favorite things to do is share a weekend brunch with my family: a crusty loaf of sourdough from the farmer’s market with a homemade soup to dunk it in, jars of hummus and basil pesto from the garden, slices of pungent local cheese, and plates brimming with cucumber and tomato slices and a handful of briny Kalamata olives. Heaven on a plate!