When Gretta Yore left Galway as a young woman to emigrate with her mother and five younger sisters to Chicago, she never thought the brown bread her mother baked from scratch every day would come to be considered a delicacy. Her grandmother had been known to make it in a three-legged cast-iron oven over an open fire, and "baking was nothing special to us," she says. "We just did it. We didn't have shop bread, as we called it."
Now, as the Galway Bakers, Yore and three of her sisters supply their brown bread, soda bread, and other traditional Irish baked goods to several restaurants and shops in the greater Chicago area, provide "sweet tables" (dessert buffets) for wedding and baby showers, and sell their goods--which also include apple tarts, tea cakes, boiled raisin bread, plum puddings, and a multigrain bread called caiscin--at events such as the Irish American Heritage Center's annual Saint Patrick's Day festival. It's a big commitment for four women in their 50s and 60s who have families, work full-time, and have to fit all their baking into evenings and weekends. "We have two other sisters who are not involved who think we're nuts," Yore says.
The Galway Bakers--Yore, Carol Coyne, Irene Higgins, and Dolores Byrne--made their debut in December 2004, when they sold loaves of the brown bread, which they dubbed Nana's Brown Bread after their mother, at an IAHC event. Given the season, they also offered plum puddings and traditional marzipan-frosted Irish Christmas cakes. "We thought that's where the big draw would be," Yore says, "but the bread just took off. We sold out of everything we had that day."
But it wasn't until the following March that the sisters really solidified their repertoire. About a week and a half after their mother passed away at age 91, the IAHC called and asked the sisters to participate in that year's Saint Patrick's Day festival. For the grieving family it was a welcome nudge. "That got us back on our feet and moving," says Yore. This time around they added scones, apple tarts with vanilla custard, Galway tea cake (a bready yellow loaf with raisins and candied cherries), and porter cake, made with Guinness and "not overly sweet," Yore says. "The Galway tea cake, now, would be sweeter."
They also added soda bread, a more upscale cousin to the everyday brown bread. Made with white flour and studded with moist, chubby raisins, in the old days it was baked only on Sundays, "in case someone came to visit," says Yore. It quickly joined the brown bread in popularity. Both are round, crusty, surprisingly heavy, and divided into quadrants by a cross marked into the top--to allow any stray evil spirits to escape, the story goes. Less traditional are the sisters' many sweet breads in varieties like applesauce pecan, carrot walnut, zucchini, and pumpkin spice. A chocolate chip-banana version is available either as a small loaf or a massive cake. "This weighs about four and a quarter pounds," Yore says, putting her hand on a cake.
The Galway Bakers don't have a Web site or a retail space, and they don't accept mail orders (although last Christmas they did ship a few plum puddings to people who called up and begged). To try their wares you'll have to visit a restaurant or store they supply--such as Irish Imports Teahan's, 2505 N. Harlem, or the Galway Tribes Irish Pub and Restaurant, 9680 Lincolnway Lane in Frankfort--or track them down at an area festival. For now at least, they have no plans for expansion. "This bread is completely made by hand," Yore says. "If we get too big, we'll lose the personal touch."
None of the goods has more than a few ingredients: whole-wheat flour, flaxseed meal, steel-cut oatmeal, buttermilk, treacle syrup, a special suet, perhaps some sultanas (golden raisins). Even the pie that the sisters refer to as "apple tart" is a minimalist creation: its thin, crisp crust holds only sliced apples and a bit of sugar, not even a touch of cinnamon, "so you can really taste the apples," says Yore. The sisters import their treacle, whole-wheat flour, and the steel-cut oats from Ireland.
Where do their other supplies come from? "Wherever I see something on sale," says Yore. "We're very thrifty. Mom taught us well." The sisters use no preservatives--after all, their mother and grandmother never expected their bread to have a shelf life. "Every day of their life they got up and baked bread," Higgins says. "Anything that had been baked the day before, you would never, ever think about eating it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.