The Sourdough Sisters Have Built the Iconic First-Lockdown Hobby into a Northside Business

Actors Mary O’Driscoll and Mairead Devlin stride around the kitchen of the former’s North Strand home, trading lines in some other language. It’s breadspeak, all about the scoring, shaping, adding the “levain” and the size of the “ears” (that sticky-up part of a sourdough loaf).

It’s a normal enough family kitchen, save for the professional-looking oven topped with a stack of proving baskets, beside an open patio door to keep the ambient temperature down.

There is so much to be done: kneading, proving, mixing, checking, ordering flour, making deliveries, texting customers, as well as logging ingredients and their batch numbers for the Department of Health, to make sure everything is officially food safe.

In headscarves, aprons and a buzzy cloud of calmly chaotic industry, these are the Sourdough Sisters, North Strand’s understated but close-to-legendary micro-bakery.

A growing in-the-know coterie has been collecting its bread from “the sisters” every Wednesday and Friday since the middle of 2021. Regulars at Glasnevin’s Honest2Goodness market should soon get to know them as they become a feature there in the coming weeks and months.

The loaves are always referred to as “girls” and everywhere you look there is improvised equipment. Proving is done in a domestic fridge, where the loaves in their bannetons are covered with shower caps to keep in moisture.

These seem to suit the aesthetic. “None of these has ever, or ever will be used as an actual shower cap of course,” Devlin is quick to point out. There are also improvised cooling racks, handheld electronic thermometers, timers and bins for the finished loaves.

“We don’t want to get too much equipment, as Mary’s family have to live here too,” Devlin says. “We will wait until we move into our proper space.”

Just out of the oven are savoury scones for the Bold as Brass coffee truck at the gates of Scoil Uí Chonaill GAA club in Clontarf. It’s a quick change and a let-down of the hair for Devlin, who zaps off to deliver them, while O’ Driscoll gets on with the business of the bread.

There are loaves to be baked for today’s click n’ collect – locals are texted and then pop around for their still-warm loaves. There are flapjacks that have yet to go into the oven. There are loaves to be shaped and proved for tomorrow’s market stall stock.

In some ways, Sourdough Sisters is all about the microbiology. Devlin even has a related educational background in it from her time in Dublin City University, she says, where she studied biotechnology.

And of course, the business was born out of the coronavirus, O’Driscoll says, when, in common with millions of other people, she and Devlin began to experiment with the billions of microbes that make up sourdoughs, to pass the days of Lockdown 1.0, after the lights were turned off for their theatre company, Carnation.

Up to then, O’ Driscoll says, they had been busy bringing theatre to those who might normally have difficulty accessing it, such as the elderly, while also branching out into youth theatre. “We lost a lot of actors as a result of the Coronavirus,” she says. “So many of them just gave up and started to do other things. We will be back though.”

“I had tried sourdough before but I never got around to actually making the bread,” O’Driscoll says. “I was home-schooling and to stay sane, we would have a virtual meeting every day at one o’clock on a WhatsApp video call and compare our starters.

It was a month or six weeks in that they started making bread, says O’Driscoll. “Which at the beginning was appalling.”

Says Devlin: “I remember eating my first one and being really unsure, thinking ‘if this is sourdough, then sourdough mustn’t be very nice’.”

Unlike the millions of others who dabbled in sourdoughs and gave up at that point, O’Driscoll and Devlin persevered and the bread got better, thanks, they say, to many online sourdough groups offering advice and support – and also to a maturing starter.

“I think the starter was just too young to begin with,” O’Driscoll says. “But as it got older, the bread got much better and we were making more of it, so we started giving it away to friends and neighbours and asking them for feedback.”

They said nice things, she says. “So then we wondered if people would actually pay for it.”

Devlin, meanwhile, came across someone on a forum who was baking maybe 20 loaves for a market stall and says she instantly thought, “God, I would love to do that”.

A health and safety course followed in January 2021 and the pair started putting it out on WhatsApp groups. Local independent Councillor Nial Ring saw it on one of those groups and put it in his newsletter and, gradually, things got serious.

Eventually they outgrew O’Driscoll’s domestic oven, which was only capable of baking three loaves at a time, and invested in a Rofco bread oven with room for a dozen. “That was life-changing,” says O’Driscoll. “We used to have to go through the horrors just to get three loaves done.”

In a couple of weeks they will move the business into a unit nearby on Drumcondra Road. They are anxious, O’Driscoll says, not to break the connection with North Strand, but they hope the new premises will help increase efficiencies and enable them to increase capacity – though, not by too much.

She says they don’t want to have too big a range of products, but are always experimenting. “At the moment we are working on a porridge bread, which is absolutely delicious and also a sourdough with potato.”

Currently they have two breads, the North Strand rye sourdough for €5 and the Seeded Sister for €6, in addition to sweet and savoury scones, pizza dough, and flapjacks, as well as mince pies when the season demands.

The business has been a slow prove, but the Sourdough Sisters are definitely in it for the dough rather than a quick buck, they say.

“There is something different about bread,” says Devlin, “It is all about love. If a bake doesn’t go quite the way we wanted it we have found ourselves running around apologising to the customers and they didn’t seem to mind, but we did. We want to be putting out our best.”

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Niall Toner: Niall Toner is a freelance journalist, and former lifestyle editor and restaurant critic at the Sunday Times. He lives in Dublin.

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