Easy-to-follow recipes for three potato apple bread variants.
Potato Apple Bread: A History
A is for Apple
I was very enthusiastic about making this bread. Until recently, I was avoiding apples because of an allergy, but after reading that most apple allergies in Northern Europe are caused by a birch-related allergen (Mal d 1) which denatures during cooking and digestion1, I decided to give cooked apples a go. I felt safe doing this because my allergy was mild and I had factors that made this the likely cause of my allergy (hayfever and living in Northern Europe), but with any allergy, please be careful before re-introducing foods. If you have any questions about cross-reactivity in allergies or specific allergens, please do contact me, and I’d be happy to do some research and do my best to advise you!
In looking into the history of apples in Ireland, I started where I think most would – Bramley apples. These cooking apples are a very good choice for potato apple bread because their acidity means they render a fine purée. However, despite accounting for half the apple production of Ireland2, they actually originate from the village of Southwell near Nottingham. In 1809, a young Mary Ann Brailsford planted the first Bramley seedling in her garden3 and this original tree is still alive and bearing fruit today. Sadly, that may not be the case for long, because very recently it contracted a fungus and is in danger of dying4. Cuttings from this tree introduced the Bramley to Ireland, when CJ Nicholson bought 60 in 1884 and sold them to growers in County Armagh. There is evidence, however, that apples were part of Irish cuisine centuries before that.
Despite claims that a 3000 year old apple had been excavated from Haughey’s Fort just west of Armagh, later analyses revealed that this was actually a puffball5, and unsurprisingly there’s no evidence that St. Patrick actually planted a tree at Ceangoba. Apples have been enjoyed in Ireland for a very long time, though – since the 12th century! In the obituary of a chief of the Macans who died in 1153, he is praised for using apples to make fine drinks for his clan6. I don’t know whether his clan had particularly high standards for drink, but their appreciation means we can be sure that apples were in Ireland long before the potato, even if the latter is now considered almost synonymous with Irish cuisine.
Sailors & Spuds
The potato (no, I won’t be going on about the famine). Perhaps unsurprisingly for a crop that became so important in Irish history, there are a number of stories about its introduction. Mostly, it is credited to Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake, both of who were English sailors said to have encountered potatoes on their voyages to America. In fact, if you’d asked me before I started writing this post, I probably would have name-dropped Raleigh and imagined I knew what I was talking about. It is, however, exceedingly unlikely that Raleigh ate any potatoes on his travels7. At first glance, Drake looks a more likely candidate since he recalls obtaining them from Chilean Indians in 15778, but the Golden Hind did not return home for two years and any potatoes he took would not have survived such a long journey through tropical waters9. As someone who’s spent a night on the Golden Hind, I imagine after he landed in Portsmouth he had about two years sleep to catch up on and was quite unlikely to start cultivating potatoes even if they had survived!
Like a lot of historical research, the truth is no one quite knows who put the potato in Ireland, but the most likely candidates are the Spanish. Potatoes were a main staple for the Incas10, who the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered in 1533. By 1562, potatoes had appeared in the Canary Islands and it didn’t take long for them to be sent and sold abroad11. There is an exciting legend of a Spanish Armada ship carrying potatoes and getting wrecked on the Irish coast in 1588, but speculation aside, potatoes were established in Ireland by 1600 and their popularity soared. This was mostly due to landless labourers renting small plots to grow them: they required very little space or skill to feed an entire family with some leftover to sell12.
Farls & Flatbreads
Flatbreads were common in Ireland, since the wheat needed for high-gluten flour was very difficult to grow13. Gluten is the protein responsible for stabilising the carbon dioxide bubbles made by yeast in leavened bread, so without this flour their breads were inevitably flat. It was not until the mid 19th century that baking soda, famous for its use in Irish farls, was introduced to Britain14 and so early versions were made with what was available: barley, oats, rye, and potatoes. As with so many recipes, this apple-stuffed version was probably invented by poorer people needing to use what they had. It isn’t glamourous, but it’s delicious nonetheless! I hope you give it a try.
Lastly, this section is the result of extensive research, but if you see any mistakes or know of anything I’ve missed, please do contact me ~ extra information is always welcome!
1: Oberhuber C. et al (2008) Purification and characterisation of relevant natural and recombinant apple allergens
2: National Apple Orchard Census (2012) Irish Food Board Read
3: Merryweather, Roger (1992) The Bramley: A World Famous Cooking Apple
4: BBC News (2016) Original Bramley apple tree in Southwell is dying Read
5: McClatchie, Meriel (2014) Food Production in the Bronze Age: Analysis of Plant Macro-remains from Haughey’s Fort, Co. Armagh (p.36) Read
6: Jackson, Steven (2008) The Irish Ancestry of Stonewall Jackson (p.18) Read Buy
7: Safford, W.E. (1925) The Potato of Romance and of Reality J Hered 16(4): 113-126 Read Buy
8: Drake, Francis (1628) The World Encompassed (p.134) Read Buy
9: Redcliffe, S. (1949) The History and Social Influence of the Potato Read Buy
10: Somervill, B. (2009) Empire of the Incas (p.97) Read Buy
11: Pitrat, M. and Foury, C. (2003) Histoires de legumes (p.164) Buy
12: McNeill, W. H. (1948) The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland Journal of Modern History 21(3): 218-21 Buy
13: Kock, J. T. and Minard, A. (2012) The Celts: History, Life, and Culture (p.5) Read Buy
14: Elizabeth David (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery (p.515) Buy
Please note that this recipe can be dairy-free if you leave out the crème fraîche – it’s only a topping and the bread is just as delicious topped with applesauce alone or with a cream subtitute.
After making this bread, I enjoyed it so much I decided to experiment with adding different ingredients. One variation I particularly enjoyed was a more savoury take; I halved the amount of sugar and apple and added 2 tsp sage, thyme, and crumbled stilton. I had it with squash & chestnut soup on a cold day, but I think it would warm you up all on it’s own.
Since Christmas is only half a year off, I’m on the look out for recipe ideas. Again halving the amount of sugar and apple in the bread, I added ¼ tsp nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger and a handful of frozen cranberries. The cooking times and directions are exactly the same and the result is deliciously festive. If you’re looking for an alternative (or an addition) to mince pies, I highly recommend them!
If you discover any combinations that work well for any time of year – please do let me know or leave a comment. I sure would love to try them, and I’m sure others would too.
- Potato, 1 floury (e.g. Maris Piper)
- Salt, ½ tsp
- Flour, ½ – 1 cup
- Apple, 1 cooking (e.g. Bramley)
- Sugar, 2 tbsp
- Crème Fraîche, 1 tbsp
- Peel and dice the potato
- Boil in salted water until tender (about 10m)
- Drain and mash thoroughly with ½ tsp salt
- Leave to cool while you make the apple sauce
- Peel and slice the cooking apple
- Put about half the slices in a saucepan with 1 tbsp sugar
- Leave to simmer gently until the apple falls into a sauce (about 15m)
- Taste and adjust sweetness as needed
- Stir ½ cup flour into the potato, using more if necessary, until it forms a ball
- Turn out onto a floured chopping board and knead gently, adding more flour as needed
- Roll out into a circle, about ½” thick
- Slice into six equal pieces
- Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F)
- Prepare a baking tray with a piece of parchment, and transfer the dough pieces onto it
- Lay remaining apple slices on 3 of the pieces of dough, leaving a ¼” border
- Sprinkle each piece with 1 tsp sugar
- Brush the border with water and top with one of the 3 remaining pieces of dough
- Press the edges together firmly to form an enclosed sandwich
- Sprinkle each piece with some extra sugar
- Brush with water and bake until golden brown (about 20m)
- Enjoy topped with the applesauce and a dollop of crème fraiche
- ✔ Nut free
- ✔ Low in fat
- ✔ Carbohydrate-rich
- ✔ Source of folic acid (B9)
- ✔ Can be dairy free
- ✔ Low in cholesterol
- ✔ Source of thiamin (B1)