Riches of Clare: The Traditional Kitchen Hearth

Clare Champion, Friday, January 3, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the Clare Museum charts the county’s history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In the latest article examining the historical artifacts, Fidelma Mc Donnell writes about the traditional kitchen hearth…

Prior to the advent of the range and the modern kitchen, a lifestyle that would be alien to young people today was carried on around the hearth. For many older Clare people however, the hearth was traditionally the focal point of domestic and social activity in the home. Unlike modern fireplaces, the traditional hearth usually had wooden or stone seats built into its sides. The wall behind the fire, protected by a flagstone or a built-up hob, usually had a “keeping hole” on each side of the fire, with the left hand one for the woman of the house. Typically, this would contain flour, tea, sugar and maybe even knitting. The keeping hole on the right hand side of the hearth was for the man of the house. It might contain a clay pipe and tobacco.

The crane on which the pots were hung invariably pivoted to the left side. This was made of iron for strength as it would have had pots with up to 10 gallons capacity suspended from it. An adjustable pot-hanger could be hooked onto the arm of the crane. The crane and all the fire irons were regarded with superstitious reverence because of their association with the fire. One superstition related to the hearth was that soot carried in a person’s pocket gave protection to a traveller on a journey, while another had it that a floor should always be swept towards the hearth so as not to give away good luck. It was also considered bad luck to let the fire go out completely, and for the woman of the house, her last task before going to bed at night was to bury a live turf in the ashes so that it could be rekindled in the morning.

The hearth in some homes would have had an associated brick-lined wall oven in which bread was baked up to twice a week. The dough was first moulded in a trough called a losset and then left over-night to prove and become more pliable and a long-handled oven feel was used to place the loaves in oven the next morning. For those without the wall oven, an alternative for baking was the pot oven; a large flat-bottomed, three legged circular pot with a handle for suspending it above the flames.

The moulded dough with bread-soda instead of yeast, as a raising agent was placed in the pot, the lid put on, and then heaped with glowing coals when it was safely suspended from the crane, it could also rest on a trivet on the floor of the hearth. The circular three-legged pot was the country-wives most essential pot, used for cooking and more importantly for keeping a plentiful supply of hot water.

The circular iron griddle with handles on both sides was more usually used for baking. This was placed on a trivet in the open hearth and the glowing coals heaped underneath, and was used for baking oatcakes, pancakes and griddle bread. For many women from the 1940’s on, the late Theodora Fitzgibbon, a cookery specialist who published many books on the subject, will be remembered for her tips and recipes, and many will remember her cookery column in the Irish Times, which ran for more than 20 years.

Here's one of Ms Fitzgibbons recipes for griddle bread for anyone feeling nostalgic:

Mix together 225 grams (8 oz) of wholemeal flour, 50 g (2 oz) of white flour, a table spoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Add the buttermilk, as much as needed to obtain a fairly soft consistency. Roll onto a floured surface and shape into a round. Heat the griddle (or flat-bottomed pan) until a sprinkling of flour turns light golden; then put the cake on and cook for ten minutes each side over medium heat. Serve straight from the pan.

I expect that if you try this recipe, you will also be provided with something impossible to describe here “the smell of a traditional Irish kitchen”.

View Pot Oven over Hearth

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