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Ballycastle’s little bear of baking

Traditional techniques and authentic ingredients is Ursa Minor Bakehouse’s recipe for success, says Lara Green.

Bear with us: the Ursa Minor team. Copyright: Dara O’hArtghaile

Bear with us: the Ursa Minor team. Copyright: Dara O’hArtghaile

Proving that slow and steady wins the race is Ursa Minor Bakehouse. This award-winning, traditional, artisan bakery in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, focuses on using local and sustainable ingredients to create outstanding Real Bread and sweet bakes. 

The bakery is a celebrated drop-in for local people, who come for the sourdough bread, viennoiserie, cakes and tarts. Founders Ciara O’hArtghaile and her Real Bread Campaign ambassador husband Dara are proving that quality ingredients, coupled with time-honoured techniques, can inject a sense of aliveness and community into bricks and mortar. 

The pursuit of provenance

Working with the seasons and local producers, Ursa Minor is celebrated for its artisanal approach. Their recipe for success involves using organic grains (though the bakery itself isn't certified organic) and high-quality seasonal produce, then hands rather than machines to hone the ingredients into exceptional things. With the couple celebrating a decade of business in 2024, it’s clear that their ethos is working. Baking here isn’t just a craft, it’s a true labour of love. From the crackle of crusty sourdough to the delicate layers of buttery croissants, every bite tells a story of tradition and meticulous attention to detail.

The Ursa Minor journey kicked off in 2013, following a stint in New Zealand where Dara and Ciara drew inspiration from the country’s exceptional coffee and use of seasonal, natural ingredients. Inspired by the food culture there, they returned to their home on Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, motivated to create a food business with a difference. 

“Dara and I loved the café culture in NZ,” says Ciara. “The commitment to fresh, local produce and the uniqueness of each place, all offering slightly different things with pride and integrity. When we got home, we felt that there could be a better food offering, with more heart. It was also around the same time we were expecting our first child and scrutinising the food we were eating, we wanted honesty in our food.” 

That pinnacle of every café they visited in NZ – Real Bread – fortunately wasn’t a new pursuit for the couple. Ciara having grown up baking with her mother, and Dara – a self-taught baker – were well versed in the timely nuances of a country sourdough. So, when an opportunity arose in 2014 to turn bread into a business, the couple went for it.

“Initially it was just a hobby and then we heard a new café was opening nearby and they were looking for a sourdough supplier; we threw our hat in the ring. From there we took a stall at our local market and after many sellout weekends we decided to open a permanent shop. We ran that three days a week for a year and a half until we got the opportunity to move into a space in the town centre, where we could have the bakery and shopfront together.” The café in Ballycastle, a rustic traditional building on Ann Street, was to become central to the local community, forming an army of Ursa Minor advocates in the process.

Keeping it in the community

Something that will resonate with many bakers is the importance of community as a force for good. That reassuring ping of an active WhatsApp group with the shared pursuit of baking brilliant bread can be a lifeline during the startup phase. Their community was something that proved invaluable for Dara and Ciara in the early years. 

“When we started Ursa Minor ten years ago we looked across the water towards bakers like Phil at Haxby Bakehouse, and Adam at Grain and Hearth. Finding solidarity with them via Twitter in our early morning starts and tough bakes really helped us find our feet,” says Ciara. Real Bread aficionado, and past Campaign ambassador Richard Bertinet was – and continues to be – a supporter of the bakehouse. 

Whilst accessing support from the baking community was fundamental to the foundation of Ursa Minor, it has been local producers, nurturing and working with high-quality produce from the land around them, who have underpinned the ethos of the bakery.  

Ciara explains: “We are committed to showing people a better way to eat through excellent produce that is available locally or across the island of Ireland. Most of our suppliers are small, independent and family run, therefore we all understand the difficulties and challenges.  I think it’s important to be able to shout about other businesses and their amazing produce to help nurture an excellent food community.”  

The bakery’s suppliers include Rhee River Organics, Vance’s Organic Farm and Broughgammon Farm. Ciara and Dara base their offering around what is being produced seasonally, considerately compiling plates of food and delicately working ingredients into bread and pastry with skill, trust and respect for the land and the people who nurture it. 

“We try to showcase our suppliers and the wealth of gorgeous produce we have in all we do,” says Ciara. “There’s excitement in the changing ingredients and it connects people more with the natural world. Our focaccia is treated year-round with delicious toppings and one of our favourite ingredients in our bread is a special smoked dulse loaf; Ballycastle is famous for this salty seaweed.”

Embracing the chaos

Being located on the Causeway Coastal Route, Ursa Minor's summers are exceptionally busy, with 200-300 loaves emerging from the oven daily. Despite early queues for bread, Ciara and Dara aren’t ones to rest on their laurels. They’re constantly searching for small changes that can improve a loaf, like adjusting the timings and temperature to get the most out of a local flour, or trialling different techniques and times for autolyse, bulk fermentation and proving. 

With a mild, oceanic climate governing the Irish coast, temperature control is key too. The couple have some tricks to reach their desired dough temperature to keep fermentation times on schedule. Proving close to the oven, at around 26°C, in winter to get things off to a good start; and a cool spot at 23°C in summer. 

Their flour suppliers of choice include English millers Gilchesters Organics for wholemeal and Shipton Mill for white, but more Irish mills naturally feature in Ursa Minor’s baking. They include regeneratively-farmed grain flour from Oak Forest Mills for bread; plus Ballymore Organics and The Merry Mill for pastries. “We believe that if you aren’t trying to move forward, you are standing still,” says Dara. “And the best bread takes a lot of work to get the most out of such special flours. Whether it’s our country loaf, with 30-40% wholegrain, baguettes with 20% wholegrain or pizza dough with 30% wholegrain. Its where all the flavour comes from as well as increasing nutritional benefit,” Dara adds.

Big plans for the future

Despite a decade of growth and memorable experiences, it seems the best might be yet to come with the launch of a new bakery school serving as a platform for Ciara and Dara to teach, host and share their approach and passion for food. 

“We can’t wait to be able to offer more classes and create interesting workshops and events to shout about great food! We’re always scheming and planning; more collaborative dinners, staff field trips and hosting stages,” says Ciara. “We are continually inspired by contemporary trends, new produce and improving our own skills.  There’s so much we want to do. It’s vital to us to continue to be true to our ethos, keep our values at heart, support our community and to help others.” Perhaps it’s this, the heady mix of intense motivation, creativity and a passion for community, that underpins the bulk of Ursa Minor’s success. 

What Dara and Ciara’s story illustrates is that if you follow the path that feels right to you – respecting people, processes, seasons and food along the way – you can create a robust and loyal community.  The people here don’t just come for the great Real Bread. They also come for the time-honoured traditions, a mutual respect for artisanal production, an inherent drive to support local, and a love of the country. A glimmer of hope, some might say, for better food systems to come. Because real change can only come to fruition through the coming together of strong communities of great people. There’s really no better recipe for success than that. 


Want to be a Real Bread ambassador?
Whether or not you're a professional baker, if you'd like to follow in Dara's footsteps as a Real Bread Campaign ambassador, you have until 8 July 2024 to apply.

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Published Wednesday 19 June 2024

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