Patrick and me surrounded by bread; scenes from McCloskey’s main bakery

One of the benefits about living in a small town is that it doesn’t take long to find out where or who has the best of the best. For fish, I’ve heard it’s Kirwan’s Fish Cart; for meat, rumor is that Eamonn James Sampson on Peter Street has the best cuts. And for baked goods, most specifically Irish brown bread, I can personally say that it’s McCloskey’s Bakery.

Good brown bread, according to my Irish friends, should be substantial in texture, moist and a bit crumbly on the inside. Though it’s made with whole wheat flour, it’s nothing like the regular wheat sandwich/toast bread I was used to back in the U.S. This is a yeast-free bread that’s dense and nutty, made in a process similar to Irish soda bread. McCloskey’s signature “Cottage Brown” bread, with its perfect crumb and hearty wheat flavor, is truly the perfect brown bread and has become a staple in my pantry.

So I was thrilled when Patrick McCloskey, Master Baker and Managing Director of the company, invited me for a tour of his main bakery in Drogheda. Patrick and his immediate family are third generation in the bakery, which has become a local institution over the years. The family runs a bakery plant in Drogheda, a McCloskey’s Bakery shop in town plus the Moorland Café, which sells a range of fresh-baked pastries and breads along with a variety of sandwiches, salads and other savory dishes. The name has become synonymous with fantastic baked goods here. Just one taste of any of their products and it’s easy to understand how this family has gained such a positive reputation.

Fresh bread straight from the oven at McCloskey’s

Interestingly enough, Patrick’s grandfather merely stumbled into the bakery business by accident. Though he originally took over the family’s haulage business after his father died young, a strange mix-up led to an eventual change in direction. One day, a load of flour sacks delivered by the haulage company was rejected because the print on the sacks had somehow been smeared off. Stuck with pounds of flour, Patrick’s grandfather struck a deal with another bakery and a friendship with the bakery owner was born. Years later, the McCloskey’s partnered with and eventually bought out the bakery. Patrick’s grandmother took charge of the baking and it went on to become the family’s main business. The rest, as they say, is history.

The first thing that hit me when we walked into the main baking facility was the gorgeous smell of fresh-baked bread (is there anything better?). On one side of the main room were racks of fragrant brown bread, warm bagels and fluffy, seeded rolls; on the other, bakers turned out hot-from-the-oven white sandwich bread that released puffs of steam as they hit the prep tables. In another room, pastry cooks piped out loads of whipped cream onto light sponge cake and studded sweet dough with luscious fruits. The experience was pure joy for all my senses and almost too much to take; somehow I managed to control the urge to run around taking bites out of every pastry and bun in the room…just barely. As if on cue, Patrick handed me some just-baked breads to enjoy at home.

The perfect lunch: Brown bread with sardines

For lunch that day, I ate McCloskey’s Cottage Brown bread topped with sardines – my favorite way to eat brown bread. Simply toast the bread, just slightly, and then spread on a bit of butter. Next, add a layer of thinly-sliced white onion and then top with one or two fillets of sardines (I prefer the kind in olive oil but it’s really up to you). Sprinkle with sea salt and chopped chives and drizzle with fresh lemon juice. It’s simple yet absolutely divine.

Thank you to Patrick McCloskey for taking time out of his busy schedule to meet with me!