Words to Live By.

freshly podded peas.

I’ve no idea how it can possibly have come about but I find I have read another Hemingway. It was entirely unintentional, I assure you. I had sworn to avoid the man as being far too depressing but his books, somehow, keep popping up just as I mutter the words, ‘what will I read next?’

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, turns out to be barely an amuse bouche of a book at just 125 easily read pages. That’s the thing; he writes with such simple eloquence, you can knock it back with barely a thought until the bitter note at the end leaves you reeling with sadness.

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He’s a bit of an arse too, isn’t he? I mean, I just can’t bring myself to like him. Or perhaps it’s that I feel I wouldn’t trust him. There’s something else though: his writing is sexy. Listen, it’s a much misused word. I’m the first to roll my eyes in despair when I hear a chef describing a cheese toastie as sexy, and you are all aware of the intensity of my relationship with cheese toasties, but I do think Hemingway, well, just has it. Charisma. Scott Fitzgerald, apparently, turned to Hemingway for advice on how to satisfy Zelda. Poor Scott, I don’t suppose he expected his buddy to publish the conversation in a book. While we are on the subject, can anyone tell me whether that scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls is the origin of the phrase the earth moved ?

‘…suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.’

Moving swiftly along…he writes a lot about visiting Gertrude Stein at her salon and recounts some of her advice to him. Stein advised Hemingway to stop writing stories which were inaccrochable. I had to look that one up. I think its safe to say he ignored her.

She refused to discuss Joyce and implemented a three strike rule where those who mentioned his books a third time were never invited back. I might do the same, if only to avoid embarrassing omissions from personal reading list (note to self: try Ulysses again).

‘You should only read what is good or what is frankly bad.’

Sound advice. I wallowed merrily in Hello magazine this morning and it did me a power of good (those royal toddlers are too cute). Of course, as Hemingway points out, choosing books is just another form of gambling; no book, whatever the reviews say, is a sure thing.

Word of mouth is the way to go and there are some lovely people hereabouts who have never put me wrong when it comes to book recommendations. Several of you urged me to take a look at Persephone Books and, oh, my goodness, what a well spring of pure joy I have discovered! Thank you, so much, for pointing me in the right direction. I have, in turn, pointed Husband in the same direction with a whisper of ‘all I want for Christmas…’

So far, I have read E.M. Delafield’s  Diary of a Provincial Lady. I can’t recall laughing aloud so heartily or so often since I read Adrian Mole. Proper, nearly choked on my coffee, laughter. There aren’t enough funny books anymore. I’ll write more about this another day. I’m moving on, gleefully, to Agnes Jekyll’s (sister-in-law to Gertrude of the rose) Kitchen Essays.

Persephone Books.

Where was I? Oh yes, Gertrude Stein’s advice to Hemingway: ‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she told him,’it’s that simple. No-one who is not very rich can do both.’

I opted for a picture, just the one, and it’s very small, but I love it. Husband, Teenage Daughter and I met up with a dear old friend, with excellent taste it must be said, and we all went along to the Crawford School of Art Graduation Exhibition. The clientele was almost like a separate side exhibition of the Cork populace. The place was jammers with blue-haired artistic types who had clearly constructed their own clothes from crisp packets, their proud relations, canny financial types with a keen eye for a bargain and a few random punters like ourselves doing our best not to accidentally drink an installation.

From the Crawford Graduation Exhibition, 2017

Belonging, firmly, in the ‘not very rich’ category, I spent the next evening darning the elbows of school jumpers and re-enforcing the toes of my beloved espadrilles.

Dinner, following this week’s splurges on fine books and fancy pictures, must be foraged from the garden. Spuds, peas, beans, courgettes and herbage a plenty; what more could you want?

Grow your own food.

Now, that’s what I call a moveable feast.

freshly podded peas.Did you ever see anything lovelier?

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Elderflower Profusion.

It’s a bank holiday here, it’s raining in a fairly gentle manner, the teenagers are (they say) swotting for their exams which begin on Wednesday, and the small girls are sitting behind me watching Horrible Histories on a loop (it’s very funny).

I have nicked somebody’s headphones, for the sake of insulation from Terry Deary’s distracting puns, and am listening to Coldplay. Did you watch the Manchester concert last night? I was fiercely impressed by the spirit of it. It was respectful and uplifting, I thought, and appropriate. Not to even mention that thing Chris Martin does to a piano stool…

Ireland peaks in June. There’s enough sun, enough rain and enough hope of a glorious summer still to come. It’s a feeling so good you (or at least, I) want to bottle it. Which perhaps explains the frantic rush to preserve the scent of elderflowers.

But first, sad news. We had a death in the family. Kombucha with pink elder flowers. Second fermentation.

Alas, poor Scoby died. Or turned mouldy anyway and I, with a massive sigh of relief, held up a DNR notice. So, this bottle which was only marginally enhanced by the addition of pink elderflowers, was officially the last bottle of Kombucha to be fermented in this house.

Ever.

Phew.

Now, on to the good stuff.

First, a quick note on Elderflowers (Sambuca nigra). I have a young plant in the garden of a pink variety called Black Lace which has a lovely cut leaf and pink flower. I have been advised, however, that another variety called Black Beauty has a darker pink flower and makes and even darker cordial so that’s one to look out for at the garden centre. I was willing to sacrifice only a half dozen or so heads from our little plant so most of these recipes were made with bog standard wild Elderflower foraged from the river bank where we walk the dog. The rule of thumb is to take only what you can reach from the ground and leave the remainder for the bees and birds. The scent of Elderflower is potent; you don’t need much. And, it’s nice to go back for elderberries to make Autumn Pudding.

Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is the book of the moment. It is a goldmine of recipes for anything you might forage, find or foster in your garden. If you want to sample some of the recipes, many have been included in Darina’s column in The Examiner (known locally as de paper) over the years. I’ve linked to those posts where I could find the relevant recipes.

I was pleased to discover that Elderflower Fizz (or Elderflower Champagne, same thing) counts as a fermented drink. Wahoo!

Drink up, it’s positively good for you.

It’s also dead easy to make although I have been warned that it is notoriously prone to spontaneous nocturnal explosion.

Elderflower fizz, or champagne.

The recipe says to wait two weeks but I suspect we will be popping a bottle before then. Can you see the fizz already ?! The recipe is here.Elderflower fizz.

The Fizz needs fairly rapid consumption so, for longer keeping, we made Elderflower Cordial. This was made with wild elderflowers and just one pink head added for a hint of colour.

Elderflower cordial.

With an abundance of elderflowers to hand we also made some Elderflower Medicinal Vinegar according to the recipe in Rebecca Sullivan’s Natural Home Book (reviewed, here). It’s really just apple cider vinegar with flowers in it. I have no idea what this might be good for, other the just admiring the prettiness of it. On that account I insisted on adding a few rose petals.Elderflower medicinal vinegar.

It does make me feel better, just to look at it.

Aaah, just came to Fix You. I loved that last night. Great choice.

So. Gooseberries.

I wasn’t really keeping an eye on them, it’s been wet and I wasn’t in the garden for a few days and then, wham, all of a sudden, the bushes were hanging to the ground with the weight of the berries. A proper bumper crop. I donned a protective long-sleeved denim shirt (don’t approach a gooseberry bush without one, says the voice of experience), brought a chair over, and a cup of coffee and picked and topped and tailed for ages and ages.

Picking gooseberries.

Those bushes sure don’t part easily with their fruit. I was impaled by several award-worthy thorns for my efforts.IMG_7436

Worth it though. Someone asked me recently how I know when the gooseberries are ready. According to the oracle that is Darina Allen, they are ready to cook with when you see the elderflowers blooming. I think they are ready when you can see the seeds though the skin or, in this case, when the bush can’t hold them up any longer. Or, they are probably ready when they are big enough to block out the sun.

Gooseberry big enough to block out the sun.

I only picked from the first to crop of our three bushes but had something in the region of 8 lbs of fruit and more to come. Eeek.

Darina Allen. Forgotten Skills of Cooking.

My first 4lb of gooseberries went to make Elderflower Gooseberry Compote. I love faffing about with a bit of muslin. Makes me feel like I’ve wandered into the kitchen at Longbourn. The recipe is here.

Gooseberry compote.

A word of caution here: I doubled the recipe but later realised that I need not have doubled the quantity of water. The result was a compote that was definitely too watery. I strained off some of the excess syrup and put it to good use. Here’s my very complex recipe:

Just add gin.

Elderflower and gooseberry gin cocktail.

SO good.

Onwards and jamwards. The recipe for Elderflower and Gooseberry Jam is here. I think it is my favourite jam ever but I tend to have exactly that thought every time I make jam. I actually don’t eat much jam. When I treat myself to toast, I like to savour the salty butter, but this jam is incredible in place of raspberry jam in this coconut pudding.

Elderflower and gooseberry jam.

With a boost of confidence (doubtless from the cocktail), I embarked on Elderflower Fritters. Something that Darina Allen does consistently in her books is tell you that you CAN do things and make things and, since the woman simply brooks no argument, you do.

These look wildly impressive. Well, I think they do. Elderflower Fritters.

Other than having to heat a pan of oil which always makes me nervous (I don’t have, or want, a deep fat fryer), they are easy peasy to make.

The recipe is here.

One flower head per person would be an appropriate serving.

Elderflower Fritters with Gooseberry Compote and whipped cream.

I’m not going to tell you how many I ate.

We’re not far from London or Manchester. As it happens, my in-laws flew into London on Friday night. What happens there could happen here. Geographical and cultural proximity makes it all the more horrifying. The layers of immunity are, one by one, being stripped away. It gets scarier. And then you think, to be scared is to let them win. To be honest, I’m trying not to think about it.

Whatever happens, life goes on. Gooseberries ripen. Elderflowers wilt. All we can do, I think, is keep our chins up and keep living.

If you want your spine tingled, try this:

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I’m delighted to join in the celebration of all things glorious in the garden Old House in the Shires.

Oldhouseintheshires

Truth is Beauty.

A few weeks ago, my attention was drawn (thanks, Sam) to this post on the really lovely Countryside Tales blog. It’s a very practical post, with reams of useful information for those who would like to share their garden with bees and butterflies.

However, it was these lines that lodged in my head:

‘A lot of attention has rightly been given in recent years to encouraging people to provide nectar sources in their gardens but we also need to provide food plants and to be prepared for these food plants to be eaten and to look nibbled. This may go against the grain for many gardeners, but if we want to support the continued survival of our wildlife (and through them our own), we need to look after them properly and shift our aesthetics a little bit as a result.’ (CT from Countryside Tales)

My mother and grandmother, both wonderful gardeners, set great store by traditional and natural methods BUT they also resorted to the failsafe of chemical pesticides and herbicides when necessary because their ultimate goal was a good display of perfect flowers. That’s the mindset I began with but recently it has shifted.

My Anenome coronaria had massive chunks taken from the petals this year. It was as if someone had taken a scissors and trimmed the petals right off. Touring the garden with me, my Mum (box, closed) suggested a garlic spray. That seemed like a good plan but then, I had to wonder why. Hardly anyone sees the garden but me and I get as much pleasure from the bugs as I do from the flowers so, even from a purely selfish standpoint, it wasn’t worth the effort of mashing garlic (the bugs in my garden benefit greatly from my sheer laziness).

Strangely, that was something of a turning point. CT’s post came soon after and somehow validated my new viewpoint. This might not sound like a big thing and I’m not managing to express it very well. Wiser women than me have written about why gardening is good for body and soul but one reason is surely that it brings us in touch with nature and another is that it envelopes us in beauty.

The thing is, what exactly does beautiful mean? In lots of ways, it means something different to me now than when I was younger. All sorts of imperfections, freckles, laughter lines, scars, scuffed floors and ear-marked pages, move me to that indrawn breath that spells beauty.

My constant is this; let it be real. That line from Keats was one of the few lines of school poetry I took to heart:

 ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

 

Are the perfectly circular holes in my rose petals beautiful?IMG_6617

I think they are. Letting go of perfection, or taking a different view of perfection, has come as a huge relief.

Whatever bug felt the desire to dine on roses, or maybe line their bed with fragrant pink petals (lucky bug), they have moved on. This week’s challenge is simply rain.

I’ve whined long and hard about rain in these pages but, not today. I’ve found breathtaking beauty in raindrops.

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You will still, however, find me guilty of killing slugs. Anyone yet discover the beauty in slugs?

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Earth Day Challenge.

The WordPress Earth Day photo challenge asks that I choose one photo, just one, that means ‘earth’ to me.

The one that immediately materialized in my mind’s eye was Mike Collins’ mind-blowing photograph. It’s here. Who could beat that? It makes my head spin with wonder.

This is mine:

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Just hanging on and sucking up the good stuff.

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Smelling like dirt.

‘In Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.’
Margaret Atwood.

Well, I’ve got that one covered.

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April is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite month and the first week of April might be the best week; it’s just so loaded with anticipation. I love, love, LOVE it!

Every spare minute has been spent in the garden, weeding, planting sweetpeas, weeding, planting oca, weeding, staking sweetpeas, weeding, planting broad beans, weeding, racing inside for my camera to catch a bumblebee… you get the picture.

I think I mentioned that I covered two of my rhubarb plants with big buckets in an attempt to force them. It didn’t work. The resulting rhubarb was was white, bland and had the texture of asparagus. Trust me, asparagus with custard is not a good thing. I’ve no idea what went wrong. This is what remains:

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For comparison, if I take two steps to the right where the neighbouring plant was left to its own devices and hold my camera at the same height:

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Not to worry, we’re not likely to go short of the good, green and properly sharp stuff. I can live without the pink.

Aquilegias are surging upward from every nook and cranny. I am a fan of any flower that just gets on with  living without demanding my attention. Aquilegias look so dainty with their delicate shade of green and pretty bonnets but they are resilient little madams and indecent self-seeders.

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And I have bluebells. My first college bedsit had a garden that was completely over run by bluebells. Bluebells, for me, signal exam time. They recall memories of studying with a big jug of flowers on my desk, the window thrown open and a Solero to keep me going. Soleros were new then, mangos too, and very exotic.

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Small Girl is a born gardener. She keeps her wellies outside the back door, like a pro, and follows me every time I sneak outside. She makes mud cakes and searches for ladybirds and tends her little fairy garden.

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The bees are becoming something of an obsession. They are endlessly entertaining. I could, I do, watch them for hours. I’ve followed a few bee people on Instagram and I am slowly picking up a little more knowledge. I learned this week that the flowers of Pulmonaria (Lungwort/Soldiers and sailors) change colour from blue to pink once they’ve been pollinated. I’ve noticed them turning pink but never thought too deeply about it.

Just look at this guy hanging on to his cup. Could anything me more amazing?

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Most of our food-growing efforts are just for fun, to experiment a little, to expose the kids to some unusual produce and for the sheer satisfaction of it. The fruit bushes, on the other hand, are really productive. I used the last of my freezer stocks last month. That was a whole winter of gooseberry cakes, gooseberry jam, red, and white currant jellies and I am halfway through my last jar of crab apple jelly.

And now we get to start all over again. April is my birthday month. In every way, April really is the beginning of a new year. Can you see the little baby gooseberry forming behind the flower?

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April. The smell of dirt, the hum of bees, the relief of new beginnings, and this:IMG_5251 (2)

Wishing you a sunny, humming, dirt-filled weekend.

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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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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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