Issue No. 68: Irish Brown Bread Crackers

Twenty years ago, brothers Kevin and Seamus Sheridan started selling cheese in Galway, Ireland. Today they own a handful of cheese shops across Ireland called Sheridans Cheesemongers—good spots to visit the next time you’re in that corner of the world. From the beginning, the Sheridan brothers wanted to find the perfect cracker to go with their cheese. Crackers aren’t a big deal in many of the countries that make a lot of cheese, like France or Italy. But in Ireland, the UK, and here in the US, cheese and crackers are as natural as peanut butter and jelly. Kevin and Seamus spent 15 years looking for that perfect cracker without success. Then they met bakers Richard and Jane Graham Leigh in West Cork, Ireland. After months of experimenting with different flours and butters and salt contents and thicknesses, they settled on brown bread crackers with just four ingredients: flour, butter, buttermilk, and sea salt.

The flour, butter, and buttermilk all come from County Cork.

The flour comes from Macroom Oatmeal Mills (which, incidentally, is also our source for stone ground oatmeal) in the town of Macroom. The mill is operated by Donal Creedon. It’s been in his family since the time of his great, great, great, great grandfather, Richard Walton, who purchased it in 1832. In the last 200 years, not much has changed. Donal uses the old stone mill—the only stone mill left in Ireland. Today the industry standard is steel rollers. “If I were a farmer,” Donal explains, “it’s as if I were still plowing with a horse.” However, what roller mills gained in efficiency they lost in flavor. Roller mills remove the bran and germ, which contain most of the oils in the grain, and most of the flavor. Those oils go rancid over time, so roller mills make grain shelf stable. By contrast, the wheat Donal produces is intensely aromatic, full of flavor, and must be used quickly.

The buttermilk comes from the Cronin family’s dairy. At their farm in Belgooly, a tiny village nearly on the southern coast of Ireland, they milk a herd of thirty cows. The butter comes from the Bandon Coop, a century-old cooperative of nearly 700 Irish dairy farmers. The average size of a dairy farm in Ireland is about sixty cows—tiny when you consider that modern industrial operations have thousands or tens of thousands of cows. But the difference isn’t just the size. Industrial dairy cattle spend their whole lives cooped up indoors, standing on slippery concrete floors, eating a mix of dried grasses and grains to promote the maximum possible milk production. In Ireland, cows live outdoors and eat grass. Ireland’s temperate climate means that cows can be out to pasture up to ten months of the year, roaming, grazing, living normal cow lives. That grass-based diet and natural cow life makes for less milk, but the milk is incredibly flavorful. (If you’ve been to Ireland you’ve probably noticed it’s a different color than ours—more creamy yellow than bleach white—that’s the diet.) That’s the milk that’s used by the Cronin family and the Bandon Coop to make their butter and buttermilk, and that goes into the Sheridans’ crackers.

The brown bread crackers may be a perfect pair for cheese. But that’s not the only thing they’re good for.

These brown bread crackers smell earthy, toasty, nutty, like good bread or fresh granola. When you take a bite, the flavor is mild at first, but as you chew it grows and grows with a subtle complexity. The crackers are wheaty, nutty, rich, a little buttery, savory, clean.

They’re outstanding alongside cheese—especially British cheeses. They’re also good with a gooey cheese and a smear of peach preserves, or a bit of Koeze peanut butter and strawberry preserves for a cracker version of a PB&J. Try them with a slice of good salami. Spread a little caramel sauce or hot fudge on them for an instant sweet snack. Or forgo all of the accoutrements and nibble on them plain—the subtle, pleasant flavor is enough for me.