Blaa, blaa, blaa - why the famous taste of Waterford is truly on a roll

The iconic floury bread is making a crust for Walsh’s B akehouse with the help of Enterprise Ireland

Brothers Dermot and Michael Walsh at Walsh’s Bakehouse: ‘The real Walsh’s Bakehouse story begins with our grandfather, Patrick Walsh’. Picture: Patrick Browne

Whoever coined the phrase ‘eaten bread is soon forgotten’, clearly hadn’t dined on a light fluffy Waterford blaa, doused in Irish butter, and washed down with tea. In recent years, the bread roll has become a staple in homes across Ireland and further afield, but in Waterford the soft white bun has been feasted on for centuries.

Brothers Dermot and Michael Walsh own Walsh’s Bakehouse in Kilbarry, where they continue a family bakery business first started in 1921, and home to the blaa. Their grandfather Patrick started the bakery after he fought in the British Army during the First World War. Cards to his wife, their grandmother, still hang in the bakery to this day.

“The real Walsh’s Bakehouse story begins with our grandfather, Patrick Walsh,” said Dermot Walsh. “Patrick’s own father died when he was young, but because he was the eldest in the family at that time, he went out to work as soon as he left national school. When he was old enough, he left home and joined the British Army, serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers. When he had served his time, he returned home and trained as a Master Baker.

“It was in this bakery that we first learned the art of baking traditional breads. In 1980 we attended Bakery School in Kevin Street College of Technology, Dublin, graduating in 1980 and 1984 with Diplomas in Bakery Production. Our professional learning experience and new skills were put to good use in 1985, when we set up our own bakery in Waterford.

But the real breakthrough for the brothers and three other Waterford baking families came in 2013, when they succeeded in obtaining a Protected Geographic Indication (PGI), from the European Commission. The protection means members of the Waterford Blaa Bakers Association – Walsh’s Bakehouse (formerly M&D Bakery), Hickey’s Bakery, Kilmacow Bakery and Barron’s Bakery – are protected as rightful producers of the blaa. To put this into context, it sends out a warning to those tempted to imitate the art of baking a blaa. Like Champagne, Gouda or Feta cheese, and Parma ham, the blaa is typical to only one region.

“Initially, we were approached and asked would we like to try for the PGI designation,” said Walsh. “They’re only handed out after a long and legal process because the protection is enshrined in law. We applied for one of those because even though we don’t use flour that is grown in the area, the product has been traced back to the 1600s.

“We had been trying the blaa out at farmers markets around the country which had just started becoming popular in the noughties. I used to travel around on a Saturday and get customers to use the blaa with their product, whether that was a burger or steak sandwich.

And this proved to be very successful and the Taste Council of Ireland started to notice us. We were then identified as a possibility for the PGI status and really started the process. Luckily the food community in Ireland started to notice too and we started winning lots of awards.

“But our big break came in 2009 when a distributor asked us if we could freeze the product and make it available in food service, which we did after trial and error, and now the Waterford Blaa is in every county in Ireland.”

What has followed since for Walsh’s Bakehouse is a boom in business with an increased demand for the bread products across Ireland, and the need for an even larger facility base. And it was Enterprise Ireland who stepped in and helped the baker brothers reach their maximum potential when they started to outgrow their business.

“Business grew so much that in 2017, we moved from our 3,000 sq.ft bakery to a state-of the-art 17,000 sq. ft bakery and Enterprise Ireland were a key part of this decision,” said Walsh. “It helped us scale up and send a lot of products over to the UK and Northern Ireland. It was not only financial help but knowledge based programmes to help us reach our potential.”

Enterprise Ireland has collaborated with 100 client companies based in Waterford. Collectively, these employ 7,580 people. Over the past five years, employment within Enterprise Ireland’s client companies in Waterford has grown by 10 per cent. Notably, over the same five year period, they have provided substantial financial support, totalling €11.7m to these enterprises.

The Waterford Blaa joins a prestigious and selective list of other Irish products in the PGI ranks, including Clare Island Salmon and Connemara Hill Lamb has the accreditation.

The blaa product has been made since the late 1690s in Waterford with the arrival of French Huguenots who were escaping religious persecution in France. Blaas are made with a simple white flour, yeast, water and salt dough, and are unique in that they are square in shape, but are also softer and doughier, with flour shaken over them during the baking process.

Legend surrounding the blaa is one of fascination. When the Huguenots arrived, Waterford was a powerful trading city, counting agricultural produce like butter and wheat among its thriving sources. It’s believed the word ‘Blaa’ stems from the Huguenot words ‘Blaad’, an old French word for flour. And the story continues, with Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, making the blaa at his own bakery in Mount Sion in Waterford City in 1802. From this new bakery in 1802, he started to supply the roll to the people of Waterford, and from there it grew in popularity. The story goes that by 11am, you won’t find a fresh blaa in the county, such is the demand for the soft white roll.