Ireland is known for many wonders, from its rolling green hills to its rugged coastlines. And tucked away in the west coast town of Westport, you'll find yet another—Cornrue Bakery, the brainchild of award-winning baker Patrick O'Reilly. Patrons from across Ireland and beyond flock to Cornrue for a taste of his artisanal sourdough bread. But Patrick, who has been crafting sourdough since 2017, never set out to make a mark on the bakery industry or become a baker.
In fact, he spent the first half of his career working in fine dining in London before returning to his native Ireland. That's when his path shifted. "There's not much demand for restaurant managers in Ireland because so many places are just family-run," he explains. "So my wife and I decided that I should learn to cook properly!"
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To bolster his skills in the kitchen, Patrick shifted away from restaurant management and enrolled at the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork. And just like that, the seeds of Cornrue Bakery were planted. What began as a small operation in the borrowed pizza oven of a local restaurant soon transformed into a designated bakery space and cafe. We chatted with Patrick about sourdough secrets (hint: It takes five days to make one loaf!), the surprising benefits of doing business outside the town center and why balance is key to a successful bakery.
"The foundation of sourdough is time. Your time, that precious thing. There are no tips or shortcuts. The bread will respond to your lifestyle. You just have to keep doing it. Most of us will never grow our own food, but you can tend to a sourdough and it will nourish you." —Patrick O'Reilly, Cornrue Bakery
Okay, first things first: What's the meaning of Cornrue?
PATRICK: The name is kind of meaningless, I'm afraid! Cornrue is the name of the hill across the road from our house: Cornrue Hill. But on the map? I don't even know if it would say Cornrue. I have this theory that names are just irrelevant. I often say that U2 is the worst name ever for a band! But it's not about the name—it's about the quality of the product. So Cornrue is just a nice-sounding name. And it didn't have any Google results when I looked it up; it doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. It sounds kind of Irish. It sounds kind of English. It sounds kind of French. It sounds vaguely bread-related.
How is Cornrue's sourdough different from most bread?
PATRICK: I decided to make the prepping and baking process longer than for most sourdough, with the goal of creating more flavor and longer-lasting bread. When you learn to make bread, you start with one loaf or two loaves, right? It was when I moved on to making eight and ten loaves that I kind of thought to myself, I'm expecting the energy from this little sourdough bread starter (a fermented combination of flour and water that forms the basis of all sourdough) to go from making two loaves to making ten loaves.
So I use a large starter but don't make it into bread as soon as one typically would. I leave it for 24 hours and then add an incrementally larger amount of flour and water so it continues to grow. And then I do that again another day until I build up this big cauldron of levain (essentially a larger starter). It goes from being a small little thing to quite a big pot that's really well-fermented. From there, you can make bread.
Wow—that sounds like quite a task.
PATRICK: What we're really doing is just extending the process of the bread-making from 24 or 48 hours to five days. So it takes us five days to make a loaf! Our bread lasts for ages.... It will outlive you and me, I'm telling you. I have this tinfoil hat theory that it's because the wild yeast are so active and they're just gunning for it after three days of being built up, so they keep going even after the bread has been baked. The bread changes in flavor the next day. It changes in flavor the third day. After two weeks, it really starts to develop flavor. So it's a fascinating process.
Sourdough was really trendy in the early days of the pandemic. Do you think that affected the success of your business?
PATRICK: In a way, parts of the pandemic actually ended up being good for our business because we went from being this kind of edge-of-town "What are they doing down there?" and "How much is he charging for his bread?" kind of thing to being the only place that was open. Sourdough became this big lockdown trend—everyone was eating sourdough and making sourdough. And we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It's been going strong ever since then.
You mentioned locals not quite knowing what to make of your bakery at first. What were some other challenges you faced in the early days?
PATRICK: Just getting people in the door was a challenge at first because we're in what seems like a not-so-great location. In the beginning, people were saying, "Where is this? Do I need my passport to go down there?" We're not in the heart of town. But what was once a disadvantage is now an advantage, because the people who come in are here for a reason. Every person who walks into the bakery buys something. So from a business perspective, it has ended up being perfect. If I were in the center of town, where people were randomly walking in to see what we were about, I'd spend all my days saying, "No, I don't do ice cream. No, I don't do gourmet sandwiches," that kind of thing. Plus, we have parking!
You've won awards for your bread, which is so impressive. How has that affected business?
PATRICK: We won gold for our bread at Blas na hEireann, the Irish Food Awards—really prestigious awards. That was incredible. We were also on primetime national television recently, and that has been a huge boost too, with people traveling from all over Ireland to visit Westport and come to the bakery. A customer came in recently—I hadn't seen him for a long, long time, this guy. He said he'd seen us on TV, and we talked about the experience. At the end, he said to me, "Listen, well done. You did us all proud." And I thought, "That's such a nice thing to say." I feel proud to represent not just the town but the people of the town.
Does that sort of positive attention ever feel overwhelming or hard to keep up with?
PATRICK: Even when things are really busy, I've learned to be okay with turning customers away because we simply run out of bread. That just creates demand—that's what happens when it's not available all the time. I'm trying to run a business that's going to sustain itself in the West of Ireland, which is a challenge on any level. I look at it through that lens. I say, "Okay. This is a business where we have X amount of space. We can make X amount of bread. Sure, we can push that a bit. But at the end of the day, there are only so many hours and there's only so much room in the walk-in fridge. There is a cap." And I accept that.
So work-life balance is a major priority?
PATRICK: Oh yeah, that's the goal. And that even extends to our hours, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Everything revolves around, "Can I get the kids from school?" Because the school is just up the road. Our house is just over there. Everything is within walking or cycling distance. It's all there, and that's the idea: keeping that balance. I try to turn the dial from saying, "Yes, we'll just keep making loaves and hope we sell them" to saying, "No, let's just do this amount. I know I'll sell them, and I'll be able to be at home as well." So it is definitely about work-life balance. We don't always achieve it, but that is the goal.
I think many people can relate to the pressure to take on more and more responsibilities. That balance is so tricky.
PATRICK: Yes, and our team is small—only a few people. I'm not going to hire eight employees and suddenly be working around the clock, 24 hours a day. Part of the benefit of the bakery is that I work for the hours I want to work and I can go home to my children. Maybe in 10 years' time, I might say, "Oh yeah, let's do that." But for now, I'm fine for it to be a nice small business that runs, sells everything, makes enough to be able to pay everybody and pay the bills. That's really what I'm after.
Cultivating community seems like an important part of what you're doing at the bakery.
PATRICK: I love that we're part of the community, and I want people to know that we do good things here. I want people to come to this area and say, "This is as good as it gets, right here in this town." I know we're here at the edge of the frontier in the West of Ireland, but it's good—what we create is good, the bread is good and we're able to do it right here.
Things seem to be ticking along nicely for you right now. What are some long-term goals for Cornrue Bakery?
PATRICK: I'd love to take this show to Galway—there are 80,000 people there. I mean, can you imagine? I'm enjoying toying with that idea, but I know that to get to be that kind of place, you need to be super tight in the place you're in. Everything needs to run really smoothly so you can copy and paste. So that'd be my kind of medium- to long-term goal, but I'm in no rush. We're still finding our feet here between COVID, no COVID, lockdown, no lockdown, boom, bust, oil prices, electricity prices, gas prices, flour prices—all these things are just in a constant state of chaos at the moment. So the way I see it, let's get this boat sailing through all this stuff, navigate these waters, then try to find a way to keep it going.