Read: Irish Examiner | Seagull Bakery: this Waterford Bakery has the taste of more
First published in the Irish Examiner on Friday 3 February.
Sarah Richards of Waterford’s Seagull Bakery uses Irish-grown flours to bring both flavour and nutrition to her bread and support a local grain economy.
From painting with colours to using a full palette of Irish-grown flours to bring both flavour and nutrition to her bread, Sarah Richards of Waterford’s Seagull Bakery talks about the importance of supporting a locally grown grain economy.
Oland, rye, purple wheat, spelt, emmer and einkorn: when Sarah Richards of Waterford’s Seagull Bakery talks about the Irish-grown flours that she uses, it’s a passionate litany of grains from local producers. Richards uses these to produce delicious sourdough loaves that are nutritionally dense and also support the local grain economy. For her, it’s a natural evolution through twenty years of baking, starting out with simple yeast bread, a move into working exclusively with sourdough and now using Irish flour in the majority of her loaves.
Tramore native Richards studied art at Cork’s Crawford College of Art and Design and got involved in bread as a side line to her painting practice. After completing the 12-week course at Ballymaloe Cookery School and a stint working at Declan Ryan’s Arbutus Bakery, she started making bread to sell. Richards built her business slowly, first baking at Tramore’s The Vic Deli then – as the first of three children arrived – in her home kitchen where she made a name for herself by selling at farmers’ markets.
In 2013, it was time for the next step: “just before my son was born, I went fully sourdough, converted my art studio into a bakery and gave up selling art.” The art world’s loss was a gain for Waterford consumers as Richards focused on producing bread that was “much easier to digest, much tastier, more interesting to make and had less chemicals.” She was inspired by a course she did with UK bread expert and organic baker Andrew Whitley, author of the seminal Bread Matters (2009). “I was living on his words and looking at the provenance of the flour, the nutrients in the flour and the health benefits of how those nutrients become bioavailable to the body when [the dough] is fermented.”
It wasn’t the easiest move for Richards initially, with resistance from people who already enjoyed the bread that she made. “The regulars all came around eventually,” she notes, “but there was a lot of ‘can you not make that one that you used to?’ I’m stubborn, though, which helped!”
With the demand for her bread increasing, Richards and her husband Conor Naughton (“Conor is the business side, I’m the butterfly creative side,” she laughs) opened the first Seagull Bakery in Tramore in 2016. “The bread had only been available for a few hours at the market on a Saturday morning and there was a real pent-up demand.” That first bakery only seemed to whet people’s appetite for sourdough; in 2021 Richards and Naughton opened two new Seagull Bakeries in Waterford City and Dunmore East.
Simultaneously, Richards’ focus on flour led her down a new path. For many years there was an accepted narrative that Ireland couldn’t grow milling wheat with enough protein to raise a yeast or sourdough loaf. When the Waterford blaa was awarded PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status by the EU in 2013, it triggered Richards’ curiosity and she started researching. A soft, floury bread roll that has been made in Waterford since the early 1700s, the development of the blaa is attributed to the Huguenot refugees that arrived from France in the late 17th century. For Richards, the fact that it was made with a leavened dough did not fit with the idea that Ireland could only produce flour with low protein content. She embarked on a quest to find Irish-grown high-protein flour that she could use in the bakery: “I kept hitting a wall in my research and wasn’t getting anywhere until I met Fintan Keenan and he was able to shed lots of light on the topic.”
Regenerative tillage farmer and miller Keenan, originally from Co Monaghan, runs an 80-hectare farm and mill in Denmark, growing and milling heritage grains for use in bread. According to Richards, his research into wheat grown in Ireland, through landlords’ records, “showed that there had been a lot of varieties grown in Ireland but after the war [WW2] they started to grow this modern wheat variety that was high yielding, low growing, wouldn’t lodge and yet they had this huge harvest to feed everyone.” With the focus on grain that was higher in volume and easier to grow, the older wheat varieties got left behind. A 2009 Teagasc wheat brochure states: “As protein is inversely related to yield, it is difficult to get high proteins from very high-yielding crops.”
Richards discovered that Keenan, working with his Ireland-based brother, Turlough, had been growing oland and purple wheat varieties in Monaghan. Richards purchased her own mill and made her first loaf from Irish-grown wheat. “It made a beautiful loaf, disproving the theory that you couldn’t grow strong bread flour in Ireland.” In 2018 she got her hands on some squareheads master wheat, an old variety that provides straw for thatch and grain for bread. Richards started making an Irish heritage loaf in the bakery. “I’d just do it as a special on Saturdays. It was a hard sell. We were using stone ground flour [which looks darker] and people were just getting used to sourdough and I’m hitting them with this but we were all learning together.” “We” included new growers like Emma Clutterbuck and Pat Foley of Oak Forest Mills, Rob Mosse from Kells Wholemeal and Andrew and Leonie Workman at Dunany Flour, people that Richards has worked with over the last few years to source flours like spelt, emmer, einkorn and rye.
“Cost is a factor,” Richards admits, “but the flour is worth it.” She manages her prices carefully: “I don’t want to be some pretentious bakery selling to well-off people. I want everyone to have access to this bread but we need to get the customers on board.” Bakeries using more Irish-grown flour is a movement that has implications for sustainability and food security. At Seagull, Richards has challenged and changed people’s perceptions of the kind of bread that we can make here in Ireland from locally grown grains, proving her point one delicious loaf at a time.