The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Van Morrison - a Celtic Sourdough for a Celtic New Year

Shiao-Ping's picture

Van Morrison - a Celtic Sourdough for a Celtic New Year

Imagine you invested in a piece of art work but shortly after that the artist decided to go into retailing, sales, or anything totally unrelated to art - the value of your investment is down the drain! because there is no continuity in the creative force.  Or, consider a completely different scenario:  for 30 years you've enjoyed an artist, he has accompanied you from when you became a young adult, marriage, career, through till you retired, and has begun your second 50 years of life...  

I was trying to think of an analogy in bread when Peter Reinhart came to mind.   And certainly Jeffrey Hamelman is another great example.  In these masters, I see a continuity.  You follow these masters, and if you are discerning enough and are able to extrapolate the lessens you've learnt along the way, you will see the relationship between your life and bread (or any other serious endeavours).  What you can learn then is beyond bread.   What these masters can teach, then, is beyond bread.  If you are able to find in these masters such continuity and such value, you have transcended beyond the physical.     

In Van Morrison I have found such a master, and value for all my investments in him.  I have found a life evolving, unfolding, deepening, and ever refreshing.   

I wanted to do a bread to pay him tribute.  I am pondering if Spelt would be a good fit as Spelt is an ancient grain and Celtic is an ancient culture.   I went to Dan Lepard's The Homemade Loaf for some help; I thought maybe Dan's proximity to Van Morrison's Irish Celtic roots would give me some hints as to what bread would do him honour.   Under the heading Ireland, all that I can find is Irish Soda Bread which is not a levain bread.  It uses bicarbonate of soda in place of yeast so requires no proofing.  I was told from other sources that the soda bread is a staple of the Irish diet.  It was and still is used as an accompaniment to a meal.    

Why Celtic New Year?  To the Celts, their year begins with the festival of Samhain on 31st October at the end of the harvest season, when nature appears to be dying down ... but "from death and darkness springs life and light."

I have a few months up my sleeve and I am brushing up my skill for a Irish Celtic stew too.  To soak up the Irish stew and Guinness beer, a hearty, somewhat dense, bread is what I need.  

My Guinness soupy starter  

  • 420 g Guinness draught stout (brewed in Ireland by Guinness & Co., St James's Gate,* Dublin)
  • 84 g white flour
  • 100 g starter @ 75% hydration  

*  The only St. James that I know of is Van Morrison's Saint James Infirmary in his album What's Wrong With This Picture, what a monumentally beautiful song.   

I heated up Guinness to 70C (158F) then stirred the flour in.  When it cooled down to 20 C, I added the starter and let it sit covered overnight.   

In constructing my Celtic Sourdough, I took cue for some of my ingredients from Dan's soda bread which has soft wholewheat flour (white wholemeal flour?), fine oatmeal, lard** (I used dripping fat from roasting a leg of lamb last week), butter milk and milk (I steered clear of dairy products), and sugar (I used black strap molasses for that deep color and bitterness).  

** Have you ever heard of a Chinese 50-year old stock pot?  Yes, in Europe or US you have 150-year old starter; in China, there is the 50-year old stock pot.  If you ever see a picture of it, you swear you're never going to get near that stew the shop owner is brewing out in the open.   My stock is, oh, maybe 18-month old (against my husband's knowledge), and it lives safely in my freezer; it gets ever renewed with each new stew or roast I am making.   Can you imagine the deep meaty savoury aroma that comes out of the little bit of lard that I skimmed off from my stock pot and put in the dough (below)?   

My formula  

  • 200 g Guinness starter from above (hydration about 328%)
  • 280 g organic spelt flour
  • 120 g organic stone-ground wholemeal flour
  • 50 g fine oatmeal
  • 30 g dripping fat from a roast ** as above
  • 20 g organic black strap molasses
  • 167 g water  
  • 10 g salt 
  • Rolled oats and oatmeal for dusting

The dough hydration from above (74%) may seem high but it is not at all; the dough feels more like a 65 - 68% dough because of the fat and molasses which are not exactly liquid, and also because oatmeal soaks up a lot of water.  I was in two minds about whether I score or don't score.  The ancient Celts, if they ever made breads, would they score like the French village bakers?  I left it untouched.  On hindsight, a score would have helped it bloom.      Anyway, here is my rustic Celtic Sourdough:    



    Celtic Sourdough


                         a Celtic banquet?

The crumb may look heavy, but, gee, it is not heavy at all, it is soft and tender made possible by the Guinness soupy dough and fat; you can clearly smell the lamb fat.  The crust is extra crispy also because of the fat.




                                befitting to Celtic hospitality?

A few years back there was a new Van Morrison biography by the English Australian composer and writer, Andrew Ford, Speaking in Tongues, that was released; I placed an order, but my friendly neighbourhood book shop never rang me back about my order and I just left it there.  So I don't know much about Van Morrison the person.  And I don't know if my Celtic Sourdough would suit his tastes if at all; doesn't matter, at the end of the day, it's me, not him.     

In the end, it is you that matters, not the masters.     

Polly our dog is pacing restlessly up and down the hallway.  I sang out, do you want to go OUT?  As soon as she heard that word, she hopped deliriously, so the answer is YES.  Out, she went; she hit her nose against the security door in excitement as she always does ... into the backyard ... into the winter afternoon sun and Australian sky ....




p.s.  Van Morrison: some of the albums I love:  

Into the Music

Poetic Champions Compose

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart


The Philosopher's Stones

Hymns to the Silence, and




ehanner's picture


The bread looks wonderful. Very rich image depth. How does it taste?

I don't know anything about Van Morrison but I'll take your word on it. You are a romantic sort.


Shiao-Ping's picture

... tastes like you want to keep going back to it ... for that something you don't quite know what ... joking ... the crust is crispy like the best short-bread cookies freshly baked (crunchy without sound - if it is crunchy with sound, then it would be like a baquette crust) and the crumb is soft and moist with a slight nutty bitterness from Spelt such that the aroma from molasses and fat combined under heat provides a lingering finish.

A girl friend of mine in Taipei is a very famous piano teacher who has three GRAND pianos at home.  She often jokingly said she "talks" a good dish.



Bixmeister's picture

Shiao-Pin,  you are a true artist and accomplished bread baker.

I have very much enjoyed your entries on the forum.  You give very complete discriptions including recipes mixed with prose or artistic touches.



Shiao-Ping's picture

Thank you very much for your comment.


janij's picture

I may have to try it.  I love Van Morrison and Guinness.  Awesomw post as well.  Very inspirational.

Paddyscake's picture

Van Morrison? I didn't realize he was still performing. Beautiful loaf..beautiful backyard. It looks like a park.


Shiao-Ping's picture

That's Van Morrison alright.


monzy's picture

Hi Shiao-Ping,

Your class and creativity comes through in grand style. Your posts are certainly a challenge to meet. I'm inspired to try some.

The 50 year stock will have to wait however.

Can you clarify what you mean by fine oatmeal, please? Are you talking about steel cut oats or is there a something I haven't learned about yet in the miller's bins s/a oat flour?

On another blogger's post there is a discussion of running steel cut oats through a food processor. Is that the ingredient?

Thanks again!

Shiao-Ping's picture

The fine oatmeal that I used is simply raw rolled oats finely chopped up (you can use food processor to do this).  Have you ever seen breakfast quick oats?  It is something like that.  Another name for it (in Australia) is oat bran.  Here is a picture of it:

Hope this helps.


Shiao-Ping's picture

I would like to make a correction.  Mr Andrew Ford's book, Speaking in Tongues, is not a biography.  Mr Ford was very kind in letting me know that it is a book about Van Morrison's songs and that his songs are more interesting than his life!  Thank you, Mr Ford.



Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

Shuao-Ping, every bread that you post here would be intimidating to attempt if I couldn't sense your joy in the creation of the loaves. You rock! as is said here in the Midwest of the USA.

St. James Infirmary might refer to a hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana.There are countless references to it in the blues and jazz repertoires of American music. Louis Armstrong is particularly associated with a song that mentions this place though the scenario of the song hints that it is a morgue.

Paddyscake: Van the Man still tours and is currently doing a live recreation of his "Astral Weeks" album, which is still considered one of the greatest albums released. He has also released a recording of a concert from the "Astral Weeks" tour.

Shiao-Ping's picture

... at Hollywood Bowl.  Did you go to that concert?  I went to a Van Morrison concert in London back in 2005 and it was a three day affair in and out of London.  The 28 hours flight door to door from down under was murderous ... and to do that times two in three days!  As my husband often said, you've got rock in your head.  So yeah, I do rock.


I didn't know St. James Infirmary has such a background.  Van the man's St. James Infirmary to me has no hint of a "morgue" (but it may well do).  The inter-play and teasing of saxophone and trumpet back and forth makes me feel that I am marching on to somewhere full of promises.