I’ve indulged myself for a few weeks in writing up an account of our weekend in Paris. It has been such a joy, not just because I succeeded in mentally air-lifting myself to a bistro in Montmartre, but because I wallowed in the freedom to write exactly what I wanted to write. I simply sat at the keyboard and told myself to ‘just get it down’, that’s all, nothing more. It’s not fancy but it’s honest and it says something, I hope, that I needed to say.
My desire was to package up something that we might take out in our dotage to read and remember a time when life was full to bursting. I gave it to Husband for his birthday, yesterday.
I also got him a book from Shakespeare and Company. I included a note in my order (there’s a space for notes in the online order form – of course there is!), thanking them for the tea and biscuits they gave us and they sent back a sweet handwritten note.
Honest to God, I think I left a piece of my heart behind in that shop. Can I just show you the packaging of their parcel? Look at this:
Would that not make any book-lover’s heart tick a little quicker?
Again, the online order form has some options to request a few little extras, a spritz of perfume, a poem typed up on the shop’s old typewriter, or just some random scrap of wordage they think you might like…
It is surely for these small moments of contact, even virtual contact, with flesh and blood book people that independent bookshops MUST continue to exist. I’m not trying to sell you anything, well, I am, but I have nothing to gain other than that they continue to exist.
The Paris write-up is far too long for a blog post. It would run to twelve blog posts, I think, which strikes me as ridiculous. Also, as I said, it is (even) more self-indulgent than my average blog post and includes minute details of no interest to anyone other than us.
The Paris write-up, which I titled A Ray of Sunshine and a Free Bench (it makes sense when you read it, I hope), does contain some photos. Most were snapped on Husband’s phone and some were taken by kindly strangers. This one is my favourite:
Hope life is treating you all kindly this murky Monday morning.
PS. Teenage Daughter made iced buns for her Dad yesterday and there is just that one left over and now I have to eat it. Oh, woe is me. #dietshmiet
If you follow my Instagram you know that Husband whisked me away to Paris for our wedding anniversary. I write that now, as if it was a normal, run of the mill occurrence but trust me, this was HUGE. I can’t remember when last I’ve felt such a surge of unadulterated excitement.
Not only did he bring me to Paris, he willingly carried all the heavy stuff and never questioned my lengthy list of things to do and places to see.
Number one, naturally, was Shakespeare and Company. This photo was taken less than 90 minutes after the plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle. You can probably tell, I’m almost crying with joy. That feeling lasted for pretty much the entire three days.
Around lunch time on Saturday, Husband quipped, ‘this is going to be a very long blog post.’
I started writing this morning and got to 1600 words and I haven’t even got as far as stepping inside the bookshop…
…I can’t imagine that any of you will ever want to read it but I have to write it because I need, really need to remember as much as I possibly can. I need to wrap up this weekend and carry it with me for the rest of my days. It was that good. It will sustain me, if only I can hold on to it.
So, forgive me if I’m not here too much for a small while. When I’ve got all the words out of my head I’ll try to decide what to do with them. All I know for now is that I have to write like the bejaysus before it’s all just a blur.
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.
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.
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.
And the food, oh God, we could be here for hours but my oxytocin levels might reach dangerous heights.
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.
Lismore is a quiet, picture book quaint, Irish village smack bang in the middle of exactly nowhere. Apparently, the townsfolk were ecstatic in 2015 when they got a bus shelter.
You do, however, get the impression that it was a much busier place in a long bygone era.
In actual fact, Lismore has a cathedral, which makes it a city, albeit a remarkably tiny one.
Lismore Castle is a real, proper castle, built in 1170 as a bishop’s palace before becoming home toSir Walter Raleigh(yes, he of the potatoes, the tobacco, and the cloak on the puddle story). On Raleigh’s demise the castle was taken by Elizabethan colonist, Richard Boyle. Boyle’s son Robert was THE Robert Boyle, as in ‘father of modern day chemistry‘ and Boyle’s Law Boyle. Since 1775, the castle has been owned by the Duke of Devonshire(not the exact same duke, well, let’s hope not). The Astaires, The Mitford sisters, Cecil Beaton and JFK are just a few of the names in the guest book. No matter what age you are, this place is built from the stuff of fantasy. I just checked out the website; you have to apply for a secret code to access an inner, concealed website where the rental prices are. I didn’t go that far for fear my credit card would have shriveled up in horror.
The castle is not usually open to the public so it was a real treat to get a peek inside. It was, mind you, a well-guarded peek. While the guest writers (Michael Morpurgo, Lauren Child, Ryan Tubridy and more) were staying in the castle we lesser mortals were confined to the courtyard.
To keep us from peering though keyholes, we were encouraged to add a final flourish to some wall art by Children’s Laureate P.J. Lynch. Small Girl felt that P.J.s palate was very limited and that the vital element was, without doubt, a big pink flower.
The highlight for me was the poet Tony Curtis who told stories, recited poems and sang songs to a small guitar, all inside the shelter of a tent while rain kept time on the canvas. A proper troubadour.
From Tony, we raced to our appointment with the Book Doctor. The girls waited nervously in the waiting room while the doctor’s assistant filled in their Reading Passports and made a note of their particular bookish likes and dislikes.
Dr. Juliette then sat down with each of the girls in turn, assessed their reading temperature and prescribed the appropriate treatment. Absolutely brilliant. I so wish they had a grown-up department.
The Book Doctor is run by Children’s Books Ireland, keep an eye open for them at festivals around the country and don’t miss an opportunity to get their specialist opinion. Irish, Munster, and especially Cork readers might be interested to read their interview with Jessica O’Gara (wife of rugby legend, Ronan) about reading with their bi-lingual children in France.
Small Girl’s most memorable moment, other than a gigantic icecream cone, was an encounter with the waffleword-spouting BFG. He might not have been quite 24 feet tall in real life but he had me convinced.
I found out about this festival a month ago and by then all the ‘big name’ events were already booked out. Thankfully, the only event with tickets remaining was with Sarah Crossan who is Middle Daughter’s new favourite author. It feels like all of five minutes since she was obsessed with Jacqueline Wilson but, God help me, she has made the leap to Young Adult.
It’s a bit scary when your child moves from reading children’s books that you can consider safe to reading YA fiction which, it seems to me, goes out of its way to deliver all the horror the world has to offer. What’s more, the higher the quality of YA literature, the more depressing it seems to be. I must admit that I’m struggling with this at the moment.
I’m shadowing my twelve year old’s reading but not censoring it. I have to believe that they will hear about all the shite, racism, sexism, bullying, parental abuse, you name it, one way or another and, at least, these books offer some degree of guidance on how to deal with it. Also, I want to keep her reading.
Brian Conaghan (also pictured above) remarked that one of his books, about a boy with Tourette’s Syndrome, has been banned in several regions due to excessive swearing. Clearly, I’m not alone in my confusion about what is and is not appropriate reading for this age group.
How do other parents of young teenagers feel about their reading habits? Help me out here!
I’ve about thirty pages left to read in We Come Apart which Sarah Crossan co-wrote with Brian Conaghan. So far, I’ve been by turns appalled by the gritty nature of the content and impressed by the extremely impressive writing and pure genius of the collaboration. I’ll let you know more when I’ve finished.
My Cooking The Books article for Bookwitty.com this month features a wonderful book called Sweet Pizza by Italian-Welshman G.R. Gemin. I was hugely honoured that Giancarlo emailed me to compliment my minor variations on the theme of his excellent recipe. Interestingly, he mentioned that the book is sometimes pushed into the category of YA fiction simply because it contains some (minimal, I promise you) swear words. I can’t say I even noticed any swear words. It’s a truly lovely book. For the review, and the recipe, Click here.
Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I also wrote up an article last week which has been, quite literally, growing on my windowsill for the last two months. As we all know, I am of the most haphazard and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants variety of gardeners so, if I can grow my lunch on a windowsill, anybody can. Read more here.
I’m off to plant more radishes. Have a great weekend.
I’m never certain when the right time has arrived to make the bluebell pilgrimage. This year, as ever, I doubted myself. As we walked the first 500 yards or so along the lowest path I thought, darn it, I’m too early. We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we? For hair appointments and coffee dates, school collections and bean plantings, always I err on the side of earliness. (I wrote last year about being early for bluebells but Never Too Early For Fairies.)
I scanned the verges but nary a speck of blue could I find. Then, Husband said, ‘look up,’ pointing above the next bank and there I could just make out a fringe of blue haze along the horizon. We clambered up the bank and there they were. Hang on, pause a moment in anticipation.
One bluebell doesn’t smell like much, just a faint floral scent, but this many packed quite the olfactory punch. I can’t remember ever smelling air so sweetly perfumed. When ever they give us smellyvision I’ll go back and capture it for you.
This is the view up to the top of the hill.
And, if I turn on my heel and swivel, this is the view down to the road and, beyond that, the River Bandon.
This is a place where I usually find myself breathing deeper, relaxing, but this time I was almost breathless at the beauty of it. I ambled along with a silly grin on my face, resigned to the knowledge that there was no hope at all of capturing anything but a pale impression of it.
By the way, to the person who climbed a huge tree and placed a mirror in the perfect position, thank you.
Dromkeen is a small Wood where fairies are well known to wander. In fact, we believe our resident fairies sometimes go on their holidays to Dromkeen. If you look closely, you can spot fairy doors, fairy windows and fairy washing hung out to dry. Some unscrupulous parents would have their children believe that the fairies leave messages.
Up and up we scampered. The dog, I’ve got to tell you, thought he had died and gone to doggy nirvana.
And then turned around and down again.
‘The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky.’ Graham Joyce. Some Kind of Fairytale.
I believe I have mentioned before the Irish tradition of dispatching young teenagers to remote Ghaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas for the summer holidays. I spent four Julys on the island of Chléire (Cape Clear) and three of those Julys I lived in this house:
It’s not too difficult to see why I left a piece of my heart behind. On Sundays, when we didn’t have Irish classes and had hours to fill between dinner and the nightly céilí, my best friend and I would pack up our books and a packet of biscuits and clamber over the rocks to sit on the very corner of that headland. From there, the view stretches to the big lighthouse at Fastnet Rock and beyond that, America. That’s where I lay on a bed of sea thrift and read A Handful of Dust, The Pearl, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies and, perhaps most appropriately, Wuthering Heights.
When a man stands on the shore looking out to sea, he stands at the littoral of his unconscious. Grigor McWatt.
In her new book, Hame, Annalena McAfee imagined into being a Scottish island called Fascaray. By coincidence, I suppose, it’s near enough the same size and shape as Chléire and similar in almost every description except perhaps the prevailing winds. My island is just like hers but warmed by the glow of happy memories and a gentle southwesterly breeze.
I loved her book. I like big books. I like stories that suck you in and swallow you whole. Annalena McAfee made me laugh out loud in the coffee-spluttering, nearly-choked-myself kind of way (as opposed to the throwaway LOL kind of way) and she gave me an excuse to drink whiskey at lunchtime ( had to take the photos in daylight!). Best of all, she gave me a week of feeling almost as though I was back on that green rock. If I met her, I would give her a hug and say, Thank You.
My grandfather drank Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. He is buried with a bottle of it. Shush, maybe I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. At his wake, my cousin and I, both in our early twenties, were confined to the scullery and charged with making sandwiches and endless pots of tea. There was only room for the pair of us in the tiny kitchen so we had to work hard to keep the mourners fed and watered but we found strength and comfort in the bottle of Jameson that my uncle slipped to us. We laughed a lot and maybe cried a bit but, overall, it is one of my warmest memories. I think that’s how a good wake should go.
We live twenty minutes from the Jameson Distillery where ALL the Jameson is made but we had never done the distillery tour. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Are we mad? Last weekend, in celebration of Husband’s birthday, we set out to remedy this appalling situation.
I warn you, whether it’s down to the fumes in the air or my growing sense of anticipation about the whiskey-tasting finale, the photos get blurrier as we go along.
Neither a spaceship, as the Small Girl thought, nor a gigantic Christmas bauble, as Teenage Son suggested, this is the top of a copper pot-still. Every garden should have one.
The tour is held in the old distillery building where Jameson was made until 1975 when a new facility was built in the next field.
Have you the slightest interest in the technicalities? The tour guide was a fascinating man who made the whole process of whiskey-making seem wildly exciting. Again, that might have been the fumes getting to me.
Did you know that American Bourbon is made with corn (maize) making it sweeter than Irish whiskey which is made with barley? I didn’t. The barley is soaked and laid out on the malting room floors where it is encouraged to germinate. After a couple of days, germination is stopped by lighting huge fires at the bottom of the malting house. Irish whiskey makers traditionally burned anthracite in closed furnaces. Scotch whiskey makers, by contrast, burned peat in open pits so that the smoke imparted a peaty, smoky flavour to the finished drink.
These are the fabulous shoes worn by the workers who had to walk around the scorching hot malting rooms:
And here, my friends, is the biggest pot-still in the world:
For scale, notice the man’s head on the left.
The big still has been retired but here, just two weeks old, is a wee baby micro-distillery. This is where the master distiller plans to test new recipes. Jameson is triple-distilled, meaning the original yeasty ‘beer’ goes through each of these stills, each time becoming purer and more alcoholic.
Onwards to the cooperage. The regulations on Bourbon production stipulate that it be aged in virgin oak casks for a minimum of one year. That leaves bourbon producers with a whole stack of used casks.Irish whiskey must, by law, be aged for a minimum of three years. Second-hand casks are not just a bonus, but a requirement. Jameson purchase 260,000 empty bourbon casks every year and re-fill them with whiskey. This imparts Jameson with a touch of the sweetness of bourbon.They also use casks which have previously been used to age Oloroso sherry and Bordeaux wine which bring distinctive fruity notes. The resulting whiskeys are blended to make the various Jameson varieties like Green Spot and Redbreast.
No photographs are allowed in the magnificent cathedral of aging casks because the air is loaded with sufficient alcohol fumes to make explosion a real risk. The volume lost is known as The Angel’s Share and the fuzziness of this next photo is testament to its potency. Woah, man, that was good.
Jameson estimate that the first 70 barrels filled every morning just replenish what was lost to the angels the previous day. Lucky angels.
Here is a sneaky peek, through glass, into the room of privately owned casks. These are valued at somewhere in the region of 75,000 euros each.
Shall we retire to the bar? How’s this for a welcome?
Want a closer look?
Here we have whiskey by Johnny Walker, John Jameson and Jack Daniels. Woops, Are those empty? What a negligent blogger am I?
The scotch was noticeably peaty and the bourbon was noticeably sweeter. The Jameson was the best. They paid me to say that. In whiskey. (no they didn’t…)
There are plenty more to taste another day… any volunteers?
We wandered around, slightly tipsy, just admiring the place. This was the Master Distiller’s cottage. Completely perfect.
This is the Irish Distiller’s Academy. Downstairs holds teaching laboratories with table-top distillation columns and the like. Upstairs, we were told (not shown) is more like an exclusive club with a private bar and dining-room.
The building in the background houses the huge distillation columns of the new distillery.
Fancy a drink? You can pour your own personalised bottle of cask strength (60.2 %!) distiller’s reserve for 100 euros.
If you like it, you could buy enough bottles to make this chandelier.
Or, if you have a care for your liver, you could buy just one bottle of 40-something-year-old whiskey for 4000 euros. This would have been made in the old distillery in that record-breaking copper still.
Heck, go mad, buy a truck load.
We didn’t go that mad. We came home with just one bottle of 12-year-old Redbreast.
You can kind of tell we are not quite sober in this photo:
I admit, I was fairly sozzled. But happy. And happy to have someone to lean against.
Happy Birthday, my love. Can we have the same again next year?