The Waterford Blaa- a bread of distinction introduced by the French Huguenots about 1690.
The Waterford Blaa – a bread of distinction introduced by the French Huguenots about 1690.
History: Who were the Huguenots?
The impact of the Protestant Reformation was felt throughout Europe in the early 16th Century. Its great protagonists were Martin Luther in Germany and Jean Calvin in France. Calvinism penetrated all ranks of French society, especially the nobility and the literate craftsmen in the towns. The origin of the word Huguenot is obscure, but it was the name given to the Protestants in France by their enemies. Gradually the Catholic king eroded the privileges the Huguenots had enjoyed. Their pastors were banished and from about1685 many of them began to emigrate from France to other European countries. It is estimated that about 200,000 Huguenots left France at the time.
In Ireland in the meantime the Cromwellian army in 1650 had expelled many of the rich Catholic merchants who were based in Waterford since the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion. Ironically many of these Catholic merchants were forced to flee to France and also Spain. Later in 1690 William of Orange defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne and this left the Protestant population in the ascendance in particular in Waterford where the new Protestant merchant class grew rich from trade with the New World.
About 10000 of the Huguenots who left France chose to emigrate to Ireland, and in particular to the towns, presumably because they felt safer in a protestant town. Among their numbers were many tradesmen and it must be assumed that some were bakers who either established their own bakeries or sought work in the Irish bakeries.
Blaa: What is it?
The blaa is a soft, white, floury bread roll, similar to a Bap or Hamburger Bun. It is highly popular, especially in Waterford City and County. They are also made in Kilkenny and Clonmel – both originally Norman walled towns. The original Blaa may have been oval in shape but today it is usually made in a round shape. Because of the huge demand for these products and in an effort to increase production many Waterford bakers place the round dough pieces close to each other on the baking tray. During fermentation the round dough pieces expand and batch together so they bake out in a square, rather than a round shape. Prior to baking the trays of rolls are dusted liberally with white flour. The dusting flour does not take on colour in the oven and remains white.
Blaa: Correct spelling
There is often some confusion as to the correct spelling and it is sometimes mis-spelt as “Bla” or “ Blah”
Blaa: Origin of the name – there are a number of possibilities:
The word “Blaa” is thought to have derived from: (a) “Blanc”, the French word for white.
This theory has been disputed on the basis that white flour did not exist at that time. This is not factually correct. At that time in France, milling was at an advanced stage and the sifting of whole meal flour through silk cloths (known as bolting) was not uncommon. Silk was introduced to Europe during the 13th. Century. Admittedly this was a slow and expensive process but it could explain how the dusting flour, at least, was white. Also, in Ireland at that time yeast bread (the yeast was derived from a barm) was made with a mixture of cereals, including oats, rye, barley, wheat – what ever was available - and this would have resulted in bread with a dark crumb. Some 200 years earlier in the 14th.century, the London Bakers Guild split into two groups - the Brown-Bakers' Guild and the White-Bakers' Guild. The Brown-Bakers were bakers of a dense, dark but nutritious high fibre bread, while the White-Bakers were bakers of the less nutritious but lighter and more flavoursome white bread. It is worth noting that baking was a recognized craft in Ireland at that time and the Dublin Bakers Guild had been established in 1483. It is likely that a guild or union of bakers existed in Waterford.
Another possible origin of the word Blaa is: (b) “Blé” the French word for wheat.
Today the French the word “blé” is used in a general sense meaning corn but to a French baker it specifically means wheat. In the same way the Germans use the work “korn” as a general term for grain, to the baker it usually means wheat. Some of the Huguenots who settled in Waterford were tradesmen bakers and would have used mainly wheat flour to make bread, so it is feasible that the local population, speaking English and Gaelic at that time, might have bastardized the word blé to blaa.
Types of Blaa:
There are a number of possible shapes including: oval; round and round batched (square). Occasionally crusty rolls are sold as Blaas but these are not authentic. To bake bread or bread rolls with a crust requires that pressurized steam be injected into the oven at the commencement of the baking stage. The Huguenot bakers did not have the ability to inject steam into their ovens.
The Authentic Blaa:
The true authentic Blaa should be made from naturally fermented dough and the rounded dough pieces should be given a prolonged proof prior to baking. This traditional method gives the Blaa its distinctive flavour. A Blaa should definitely not contain any of the following:
preservative, flour bleach or treatment agents, reducing agents, emulsifiers, enzymes (except those naturally occurring in flour) or crumb softeners. Unfortunately many bakers have succumbed to making their blaas using modern high speed no time systems with out the use of natural fermentation and with some or all of the above additives. These modern production systems have resulted in the Blaa lacking the original flavour that made it famous. Ironically, if todays Irish Blaa bakers were operating under French jurisdiction they would be forbidden the use of such methods or additives.
The gourmet Blaa:
Originally they were eaten at breakfast time and also later during the day – very similar to how the French eat their baguettes. They may be eaten with a wide variety of fillings but are simply delicious with just creamery butter, or perhaps with a sprinkle of olive oil and parmesan shavings. More recently the breakfast Blaa – containing a fried egg, bacon and sausage, has gained popularity with breakfast roll man.
© copyright Derek O’Brien, Baking Academy Ireland, Dublin