Growing up reciting the Lord’s Prayer everyday at school, it made perfect sense that we asked to be given our daily bread. Belfast is a city of bakeries and practically every meal, including our famous Ulster Fry, combines bread in some shape or form. In fact, the city even gives its name to the world famous crusty Belfast Bap.
Perfect filled with anything, mainly fried goods, this humble bread roll has an illustrious past. Invented by master baker, cross community pioneer and philanthropist Barney Hughes in the 1840s, it is credited with feeding the city during the Famine and ensuring it wasn’t as badly affected as many other parts of Ireland, paving the way for it to become one of the great industrial centres of the Empire, famed especially for shipbuilding, including the Titanic.
The Belfast bap is still baked daily back in Northern Ireland, forming the basis of many a meal. There’s few things that don’t taste better stuffed into a buttery Belfast bap. In fact, a crisp sandwich isn’t a crisp sandwich unless it’s Tayto Cheese & Onion on a proper burnt brown topped bap. But the ultimate Belfast meal is that stalwart of every chippie, the Pastie Bap.
Nothing like its pastry cased Cornish cousin, the Belfast pastie is a patty of sausagemeat and potato dipped in batter, deep fried til golden and then either slipped between side of a buttered bap and anointed with your choice of sauce or also served as a pastie supper with chips. Designed to use up the leftover chips from the day before, they have become a delicacy in their own right. They are the perfect food to fortify you on a cold, damp Belfast day with the wind whistling down from the Cave Hill.
Unfortunately no-one in England has ever heard of them and even with my phenomenal ability to carb load, I can’t get a Cornish pasty into a sandwich. I tend to pine for them when I’m in London and make a beeline for the chippie when I’m home. But that’s not enough anymore. Inspired by an afternoon with a friend who’s just moved back to Belfast, I decided the time had come to make my own pastie baps from scratch.
I started with the bap. I knew I wouldn’t be able to achieve quite the same sensation at home. Belfast Baps have a crispy flour dusted oven scorched top and a chewy texture that comes from the hottest commercial oven possible. But as long as it was big and golden, any bap would do. I started by looking for a recipe from my prized copy of The Belfast Cookbook by Margaret Bates. Published in the 60s by the head of Domestic Science at the teaching college, it’s the bible for local foodstuffs and sure enough, there’s a recipe for (Scottish) baps.
Easy enough once you’ve got used to lbs and ounces, I followed it to the letter, scalding milk and melting lard and proving the dough on a sunny Sunday morning before baking in a hot steamy oven that made the house smell fantastic. Sadly though after waiting with baited breath I opened the oven door to bap shaped bricks. Despite an ounce of yeast in the mix, the baps didn’t rise an inch. It was a total bap malfunction.
Disappointed beyond belief, I went back to Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet and used his recipe for soft white baps on page 60. A little bit more time consuming, but delightfully forgiving (even though I left the sponge overnight), these ended up being totally bap-tastic. The tops got a good chewy crispy vibe going and then the insides were soft and bouncy and beautiful. I couldn’t stop staring at them.
I eventually tore my eyes away and got stuck into the pasties. These are best made with sausagemeat, so ask your butcher for some if you don’t want to be stood skinning sossidges for hours. Get something coarse cut, not that weird pink sludge you see at Christmas time in supermarkets. You want some bite. Fry it off lightly until just cooked and allow to cool. Then if you don’t happen to have some spare uncooked chips knocking around, do some mash instead. Drain it really really well and mash lightly. Lumps are fine. You don’t want paste in your pastie.
Then get your spices together. Pasties are packed with flavour and not at all bland. They were probably the most spiced thing available in Northern Ireland for years and you want them tasty. Put about a teaspoon of black pepper and freshly ground nutmeg in. Then a half teaspoon of ground cloves, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne, ground coriander seed, ground ginger and white pepper are added and everything gets well mixed. You don’t need to bind the mixture with anything. The fat in the sausagemeat holds it all together. Then with your hands, form into patties and flatten out. Put them on a plate and pop it in the freezer for 15 minutes or so to make them easier to dip in the batter.
Your batter is simple. Use self raising flour and sparkling water to make a batter with a light dropping texture. Don’t rest it as you want the bubbles to keep it airy. Then dip your pasty into the batter, covering it completely and shaking off any excess. Carefully slip into a pan of hot oil and deep fry for about 2 minutes or until the batter is golden, puffed up and lovely and crispy. Drain onto kitchen towel and slip between an opened buttered bap. Sauce is optional.
Steaming hot, crispy, chewy, savoury and the right side of stodgy, I can only give these pasties the highest accolade and say they taste just like ones from childhood. But I think the baps might be even better than the ones I grew up on. Slightly less abrasive and better flavoured, they were amazing. Try making both the bread and the filling from scratch if you can, but even shop bought baps will give you the proper chippie style experience, especially when served with some scalding hot mousetrotting strong Belfast Brew tea. You’ll see why Van Morrison wrote a song about them…
Wee Alfie at the Castle Picture house on the Castlereagh Road.
Whistling on the corner next door where
He kept Johnny McBride’s horse.
O Solo mio by McGimpsey
And the man who played the saw
Outside the city hall.
Pastie suppers down at Davey’s chipper
Gravy rings, wagon wheels, barmbracks, snowballs.
A Sense of Wonder: Van Morrison