Talking About Food.

I think I said too much.

There was a long, very long, time in my life when I said basically nothing. I held it all inside. I was the very epitome of ‘bottled up’. And then I started writing and it was like all sorts of fizzy stuff rose to the top and spluttered out from under the cap. Mainly here.

It feels good, a release valve and all that, but this weekend I found myself in a writing workshop and that bottle got properly shaken up and I may have made a complete fool of myself.

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The event was labelled as a FOOD writing workshop and I, in my innocence, thought we might be asked to brainstorm effective adjectives to describe cheesecake, or instructed on international standards of measurement. Remember, I studied SCIENCE! Our lab write-ups were not expected to stir the emotions. We weren’t required to read them aloud to an expectant circle of fellow scientists who might comment on our choice of the word incubate over cook, dispense over pour or centrifuge over stir vigorously. 

Nope. No lists at all of handy adjectives, nor tables nor graphs, nor even rules about Oxford commas, and the minute I saw those chairs arranged in a CIRCLE I knew I was in Trouble.

Our first task was to write a poem.

Dear God, I thought, are they serious? We had five minutes to choose from some vaguely culinary objects placed on a table, and then another ten minutes, or so, to compose a poem.

This was immediately followed by the sheer terror of realisation that I would have to read it aloud.

People are lovely. The kindness of strangers is such a reassuring thing. There were eleven of us: 5 Irish, 1 English, 3 American and, bizarrely, 2 unrelated Mexicans. What was striking, I suppose, was that despite disparate backgrounds and various motivations, everyone immersed themselves in the experience and went with it. There was no place to hide. Everyone, every single person, was kind and generous.  The teachers/ facilitators/ counselors, Regina Sexton and Jools Gilson, were patient and insightful and, thankfully, funny. It felt more like therapy than school. Seriously, not like science, not even a little bit. I can’t even tell whether or not I learned anything.

The reward for reading a poem aloud came in the form of a break, with tall pots of coffee and buttery shortbread hearts served by ladies in navy uniforms and white broderie anglaise trimmed aprons. Nice.

But, the respite was short-lived and the second task did the shaking. We were asked to write a recipe, but not really a recipe, more a memoir piece with food, or a recipe, at its core. You see the danger here, don’t you?

I was already brimming with endorphins and charged with caffeine. I sat facing the wall in the same corner where I had written the poem and I was crying before I reached the first full stop.

Spill, spill, spill. A memory on a page. Tears and snot all over the place.

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In my defence, I wasn’t the only one. It’s fascinating to me how much emotion is bound up in our memories of food. Or, on the other hand, how much food we even remember.

Dorcas Barry gave a talk on Saturday about the idea of emotional nourishment. Apparently, when we experience a happy, joyful, meal with family or friends, we experience a rush of oxytocin which not only aids digestion but has incredible health benefits. Oxytocin drastically reduces our risk of heart disease, even in the face of a toxic diet. There’s even science to prove it.

Now, here’s the thing, when we REMEMBER that lovely, happy meal with loved ones, we get exactly the same PHYSICAL rush of oxytocin and the same protective effect, even at a distance of years or decades from the actual plate of food. So, when the kids share a good laugh over passing all their sprouts to my plate, or a potato that bears a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, they are creating memories that will, literally, protect their hearts, over and over again, for the rest of their lives. And when we sit down on Christmas Eve and remember all the other Christmases, we are laying down a barrier against all the goose fat we are about to consume. Isn’t that amazing?

It seems to me, and I would love to know if anyone out there knows more about this, that we have evolved so that people who reminisce, recall, read, talk and write (even terrible poetry) about food actually have a better chance of survival. Hah! I feel I have found the ultimate justification for all my waffling.

I’d like to mention two fellow (and FAR superior) bloggers from the workshop.

Kathy writes Gluts and Gluttony, a beautifully written blog about growing and cooking food in the Cotswolds.

Lily writes A Mexican Cook, in her friendly, cheerful, authentic voice, about Mexican food and how to cook it in Ireland.

Litfest17 was a blast. I was still spilling words all days Saturday, asking stupid questions of bemused celebrity chefs and gushing idiotically in my excitement at meeting some of my heroes.

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Brian McGinn, producer of Chef’s Table, talks about how to tell food stories. ‘Once you’ve had a scone in Ballymaloe House in the morning,  with the jam and the butter and everything, you’re like, shit, when can I have more scones and, hey, what other scones are out there?’
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Rebecca Sullivan who, in real life, is just as warm and passionate as her book made me believe. She hardly mentioned The Art of the Natural Home and spoke, instead, about the preservation of native Australian foods. A beautiful person.
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RTE’s John Bowman hosts a foodie special of Questions and Answers, with Rory O’Connell, Michael Kelly and Joanne Blytheman.

 

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A very proud Granny watches Willow Xena singing on stage.

And the food, oh God, we could be here for hours but my oxytocin levels might reach dangerous heights.

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Fingal Ferguson, charcutier and knife-maker, struggles to balance cooking with the demands of celebrity.
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#flaggy shore oysters
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Gaelic Escargots anyone? I’m afraid I was NOT brave enough. Maybe next year.
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Source of a mouth-watering Lamington square for ‘second breakfast’.

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‘Roll up, roll up, cme get your oxytocin here!’
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The maker of the best Cacciocavallo Toastie in the land (first lunch). Be still my heart.
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Happy as clams (second lunch).
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The spoils. A Kombucha starter, a sourdough starter from Arbutus, an unbelievable syrup for gin cocktails and a thingymabob for holding dough.

Yes, yes, I know, I can’t NOT put it in. It’s nothing much. You’ll wonder now, what all the fuss was about.

How To Cook Eggs.

It was the way she made eggs for me, in the morning or maybe for lunch.

Always the same ancient saucepan, the enamel worn off it and a handle that would brand you if you didn’t know how to position it just right on the orange-glowing electric coil.

She would count in the eggs, two for me and two for her, and pour water from the tap, just enough to cover them, and cook them then, at a gently knocking simmer, until they were exactly right.

No timers or gadgets, just somehow knowing when they were done, with the white white, not snotty, and the yolk still having a bit of run to it.

What I remember best are the sounds. The crack of the spoon against the eggshell, the scooping out of the egg into a cup, then a quick clinking stir with a knob of butter and a pinch of salt until it was amalgamated together into golden, endlessly comforting, googy eggs.IMG_7034

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Crystallised Flowers.

crystallized flowers.

And breathe.

Last week was a bit nuts. I interviewed Darina Allen (Genie Mac, I can still hardly believe that really happened), published what is without doubt my favourite of my Cooking The Books projects so far ( I truly adore that book) and, AND saw my name in print, for the first time, in a magazine.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017.

 

Actually, I have been published before. My last publication was in 1997, in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiolgy, and looked like this:

A Mutant of Listeria monocytogenes LO28 Unable To Induce an Acid Tolerance Response Displays Diminished Virulence in a Murine Model
LYNDA MARRON,1 NATHAN EMERSON,1 CORMAC G. M. GAHAN,1,2 AND COLIN HILL1,2* Microbiology Department1 and The National Food Biotechnology Centre,2 University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
Received 27 June 1997/Accepted 25 August 1997
Exposing Listeria monocytogenes LO28 to sublethal pH induces protection against normally lethal pH conditions, a phenomenon known as the acid tolerance response. We identified a mutant, L. monocytogenes ATR1, which is incapable of inducing such tolerance, either against low pH or against any other stress tested. The virulence of this mutant was considerably decreased, suggesting that the acid tolerance response contributes to in vivo survival of L. monocytogenes.

Feel free to indulge in the full article here. Are we still awake?

I’ll put it on the record here that L. monocytogenes LO28 nearly killed me. I so desperately wanted to be scientist and I really thought I could be. I was really good at learning stuff but it turned out that I wasn’t very good at the nitty gritty of discovering stuff and that flipping bug refused, stubbornly, for three stinking years, to do what it was supposed to do. Anyway, I think we can agree that my more recent publications are a good deal prettier and probably more useful too.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017. Sultanabun.

That’s Mark Diacono, by the way, of River Cottage and Otter Farm fame, who’s sharing my page! My only grip is that they never used that bio pic that Middle Daughter and I went to such great lengths to produce.

Sticking with a theme of prettiness, I want to share the method I used to make those crystallised flowers on top of my ultimate chocolate cake (for recipe see Cooking The Books, here).

The ultimate chocolate cake.

Fittingly, the method is from Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course book but she shares it in this Easter Baking post from the Irish Examiner. (Honest to God, the good people at Ballymaloe are not paying me to advertise for them!)

crystallized flowers

Crystallising  flowers is not difficult, only a little fiddly. You simply paint the flowers gently with egg white and then sprinkle them with very dry caster sugar (dried in a low oven to make sure). The flowers should then be allowed to dry in a warm place.

You can learn from my mistakes: I grew impatient (a perennial flaw of mine) and stuck my flowers into my oven at the very lowest setting. It worked well enough but the colour was dulled and they lost their vibrancy.

Teenage Daughter made a much better job of hers. The Small Girl made some too but ate them before she could be asked to pose for a photograph.

crystallized flowers.

Teenage Daughter has the practical part of her Junior Cert Home Economics exam today. Her task (it’s a lottery) is to make a main course and a dessert from fresh fruit or vegetables. Her dessert will be her own variation of Lilli Higgins carrot cake , this time making one layer carrot and one of courgette cake – it really works! We’ve been eating it on a regular basis for the last few weeks while she practised. My expanding waistline is evidence of my daughter’s diligence. It’s a delicious cake and she will decorate it with this icing and her gorgeous flowers.

I’ll collect her later on with all her bowls and paraphernalia and, fingers crossed, a successful cake with just one neat sliver eaten by the examiner!

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The Ultimate Chocolate Cake and an Extraordinary Book.

Kate Atkinson. Life After Life. Cooking the books.

Kate Atkinson. Life After Life. Cooking the books.

My small girl was born half-strangled, the umbilical cord wrapped four times around her neck. Unlike the birth days of my other children, it’s not a memory I like to revisit. What-ifs crowded so closely against reality that I can’t think about what happened without also re-living the nightmare of what nearly happened. My small girl was born on…

Click here to read more.

In Conversation with Darina Allen.

Darina Allen with kale. Credit. Kristin Perers.

How nervous do you think I was about speaking with Darina Allen?

Double that. Husband spent last weekend re-assuring me that we know Darina is a lovely woman. I mostly ignored him and studied every scrap of information I could find, cramming like I haven’t done since, oh let’s see, 1994 or thereabouts. I don’t know why I imagined Darina Allen would be inclined to quiz me but I was determined that I should not be found wanting.

I may apply for Mastermind now, specialist subject, ‘Ballymaloe 1964-present.’

Interviewing Darina Allen.

Well, yes, he was right. He usually is.

Darina Allen couldn’t have been nicer. She was generous with her time, informative and, to be honest, downright inspiring. She reminds me of all the best teachers I ever had. The ones who truly scared the living daylights out of me, not because of any threats of punishment but because their expectations were so high.

Darina Allen’s gift is that, like all great teachers, she will make you believe you can do better.

Read the full interview by clicking here.

Darina Allen with kale. Credit. Kristin Perers.
Darina Allen at home in her 100 acre organic farm. Credit for photo: Kristin Perers.

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Bee Friendly: Let’s Save Our Bees!

It’s snowing! The kids are ecstatic, the dog is in shock and I can’t help feeling just a little thrill of excitement myself. Sound is muffled today and light is subdued. It feels as though we are wrapped in a huge, thick duvet that’s spilling feathers.

Last week, I was outside in balmy sunshine taking photos of bumblebees. I can’t help but wonder where the poor bees are hiding out this morning.

I’ve been working on an article about bees for Bookwitty.com. We are all aware of the worrying fall in bee populations worldwide but many people don’t seem to realise how critical it is to arrest the decline NOW and how vital a contribution we can all make to saving some bees. We don’t need to volunteer time or donate money; we just need to make a few changes in the way we think about weeds and wildflowers and gardening in general.

I did a lot of research for this article and put a lot of time into it because I really, REALLY would like to do my bit. Please, do read this and please, please, spread the message. Read the full article here.

How to make people like your food more without making your food better.

Gastropysics by Charles Spence

I reviewed a book called Gastrophysics by Professor Charles Spence.It’s a fascinating book which left me, by turns, excited and appalled.

Gastropysics by Charles Spence

Everyone who eats in restaurants or buys food in a supermarket, basically anyone other than self-sufficient farmer/foragers should read this book.Anyone in the business of selling food, or writing recipes, or posting photos of food on Instagram, must read this book. At the very least, read my review here.

Soup and a good book.

I have forsworn cake for lent. It’s not that I am worried about my eventual entry through the gates of heaven (though it could be a tight squeeze) but that I am concerned with the close-fitting nature of my jeans.

I have tried re-introducing the family to salads but the family was having none of it. They complained vociferously and informed me that it’s still too chilly for cold dinners. They have a point. It is surely the season for soup.

Aztec Soup

For my March edition of Cooking the Books, I have devised the ultimate soup recipe. It was almost too easy this time. The book, Umami by Laia Jufresa, practically spelled out the recipe to me. It all came together like some sort of literary magic.

 Find the review and the recipe for Aztec soup here.

Today is World Book Day. Small Girl is very excited about finally qualifying for a free book voucher and I’m happy to have an excuse for a bookshop outing. The books look great this year. Take a look at the list on WorldBookDay.com. I won’t be able to resist the Famous Five stories and I suspect Small Girl will want the one about underpants.The gallery of World Book Day doodles by well known illustrators is also well worth a look.

I like lists. I am a maker of lists and a dedicated ticker of lists. Best of all the lists, of course, are book lists and there are some fantastic book lists out there. If the internet had been invented just for the book lists it would have been worth it. These are some of my favourites:
The Agnes Reading List. I’m blowing my own trumpet here since I compiled this list of books for teenage girls. My all-time most loved books are on this list.
The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Rory Gilmore is one extremely well-read young (and fictional, by the way) lady. These are all the books she reads or mentions over the seven seasons of The Gilmore Girls. You can tick the books you’ve read on this VERY good list (SO satisfying, I’m at 64 of the 339 books).
The Guardian’s list of 100 best novels ever written in English is a SERIOUS list, developed over two years by Robert McCrum. It’s compiled in chronological order. I’ve read 25 which is hardly very impressive.
The 100 Best Children’s Books from Time.com is a thing of beauty. I could flick through this quite contentedly all day long.
The 25 greatest cookbooks of all time is calling to me. So much temptation. The only one of these I own is Moro. My birthday is coming up soon…hello, family…can you hear me? Hint, hint, etc.
My favourite cookbooks are listed here.
Barack Obama’s Reading List: The 79 books recommended by a very bookish president during his time in office.
J.K Rowling’s Reading List: The books which have most influenced the world’s most successful author.

If you don’t find what you’re looking for in any of those lists you could take a glance through the books I’ve read since starting this blog in May 2015.
I hope you find a book you love today.

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