In the 17th century, French Huguenots appeared on the shores of Ireland. Driven from their native country for their Reformed Protestant beliefs, they settled in the southeastern seaport town of Waterford. These refugees brought along their culinary traditions, including wheat-based white bread. The French called it pain blanc. According to popular stories, locals simply pronounced this new food “blaa.”
Today, mornings in Waterford without these soft, white rolls are just, well, blah. They’re considered such a staple that people from surrounding counties simply refer to Waterfordians as “the blaas.” Locals unanimously consider the bun a breakfast food, and purists say it’s best eaten fresh from the bakery and slathered in salted butter. For a heartier snack, they’ll also add thin slices (or “rashers”) of bacon, chips, or “red lead” (a bright pink, spiced pork lunchmeat that’s a local favorite). But you’ll rarely see the bread after noon, partly because of its breakfast association, and partly because of how quickly it goes stale.
Bread-makers heavily flour these simple buns throughout the baking process, yielding a distinct chewiness and softer, doughier consistency than their English counterparts known as baps. Many bakers leave some batches of blaa in the oven for longer than others, as customers often specify their preference for soft-top or crusty-top when ordering. Dozens of small, local establishments used to bake them, but today, just four blaa bakeries remain in total.
As of 2013, the European Union awarded blaa “Protected Geographical Indication” status, meaning only those baked in Waterford can bear the name, akin to Italian Parma ham, French Champagne, or Welsh bara lawr. And with the rapid growth of food corporations in the area, the humble bun needs protection. Said one of the last traditional bakers: “If the blaas weren’t here, there’d be no bakeries in Waterford.”
Need to Know
Some Waterford bakeries distribute frozen blaas internationally, but others only sell their goods locally.