Tuesday 17 October 2017

Rolling back the years in Wexford breadmaking

James O'Connor, the owner of Greenacres in Selskar is reviving a family and a Wexford tradition by opening a new state-of-the-art bakery in the town.

Wexford once had more bakeries than you could shake a bread stick at - in 1856, there were 24 on the Main Street alone and 38 altogether in the Wexford area.

At Christmas, it was customary to buy a turkey and get your friendly local baker to cook it for you in the bread oven.

James O'Connor's family history is intertwined with the history of bread-baking in Wexford, dating back to the mid 19th century.

Having opened his new bakery in October, he is now the sixth generation of the O'Connors to run a bakery in the town.

His son Patrick, currently studying in UCD, has been baking in Greenacres since he was 15, and can proudly claim to be the seventh generation involved.

If you're walking along the Main Street, stretch your neck to look at the upper storey of Boots Pharmacy.

You will see large letters declaring 'Bread is Still the Staff of Life.'

This premises is where Frank O'Connor's Bakery, established in 1860, produced soda bread, pan, basket and batch loaves, vienna rolls, turnovers, marble cake and wedding and Christmas cakes which were even exported across to Fishguard during the war years.

James worked part-time in the family bakery from the age of 13, wrapping bread and swiss rolls.

Like other firms before it, Frank O'Connor's, the first Wexford bakery to have motorised transport, closed down in 1979.

There was a slump in the local bakery trade during the 1950s as an influx of bread vans from industrialised bakeries delivered sliced pans to shops.

The ubiquitous sliced pan was sold at almost half the price of a loaf of local bread.

The majority of Wexford bakeries didn't survive this new rush towards mass convenience.

More than 30 years later, James O'Connor is reversing the trend.

He and his wife Paula originally set up Greenacres wine shop, restaurant and art gallery in the old bakery building before moving to the redbrick premises in Selskar which was once the headquarters of the O'Connor family legal practice which his sister Catherine now runs in Drinagh.

By early 2013, the thriving business had expanded to fill the three-storey space.

'During the summer, we found the business at times hard to contain,' said James.

'October, during the Opera Festival is also a busy time for us.'

'We had to take a fresh look and re-think our space again.'

'We decided to go the whole hog and put in a hot bread bakery to serve our own restaurant needs, retail demand and our outside catering service.'

Mahon Fox Architects, Michael Hayes and Ennis Engineering which supplies bakery equipment, were engaged for the project.

After the initial plans were made and machinery ordered, it was discovered that the 9 kilowatts of power in Greenacres fell far short of the 260kw required to run the ovens.

It was back to the drawing board. 'We decided to go with gas and all the ovens had to be re-adjusted for gas,' said James.

A new deck oven which is being shipped from Italy is due to arrive this week.

The fully-equipped top-floor bakery which overlooks the rooftops of Selskar, has seating for 70 people and in-built ceiling cameras to enable it to double as a cookery demonstration and corporate dining space.

It will be run by head chef Richie Trappe.

James's ancestors who modernised the original bakery in 1918 and earned it a reputation as the finest breadmaking facility in the county, would surely be proud.

Meanwhile, James has a challenge on his hands as he sets out to prove that even in the 21st century, bread is still the staff of life.

'We're trying to get the original recipe for the batch loaf,' he said.

Wexford People

Most Read