By complete coincidence, I recently reviewed two books written by authors with impressive histories of political and environmental activism.
Luis Sepúlveda‘s life story is one of breath-taking courage and adventure so it’s hardly any wonder that his book for children, The Story of a Snail Who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow inspires individual thinking and heroism.
Arundhati Roy‘s new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was heralded as the most anticipated book of the decade. As one who was bowled over by The God of Small Things, I dived into this with high hopes. Read my review here.
What are you reading at the moment? I’d love to know.
A super-quickie post today as I am on official exam taxi service duty with a fairly frantic schedule and extremely stressed customers.
My Small Girl made my day by handing me, for the first time, a little note of her own composition. Many years ago, I framed a note that Teenage Son gave me. A couple of years later I stuck a note from his little sister into the same frame. The third note followed about six years ago and now, finally, I have the complete set. One of the many reasons I love these notes, in this frame, is that they all have a bonus on the reverse side.
From youngest up:
Small Girl: I love you Mum.
The girl is succinct, accurate and cleverly references our shared appreciation of good shoes.
Middle Daughter: Mommy you are the best Mammy in the world.
Reverse: lovely illustration of Mammy and girl in a heart.
A complete sweetheart who knows how to fit a world of love into one perfect sentence.
Teenage Daughter: I love you (with garden scene and bird in the sky).
Reverse: To mama, I had a lovey day. ps there is a pachr (picture) on the back
My kind, appreciative girl who has been artistically inclined from the beginning.
Teenage Son: Opin (open, the note was folded)
Top Sucrt (secret). TodToyday Todoay
I say taic (thank) yoyu for letine (letting) me sleep wit you.
Reverse:Form (from) Markk
I love you Mammy. (accompanied by his habitually armless people)
This boy just came home from English, Paper One. He is, honestly, one of the smartest people I know. I just have to hope his examiner can see what I see.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It does make me feel better, just to look at it.
Aaah, just came to Fix You. I loved that last night. Great choice.
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.
Those bushes sure don’t part easily with their fruit. I was impaled by several award-worthy thorns for my efforts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One flower head per person would be an appropriate serving.
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.
Cooking the Books: this month it’s Revolutionary Cod with Cork man Frank O’Connor.
Frank O’Connor, born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, is a writer who resides close to the hearts of Irish people simply because, for very many of us, his short story ‘First Confession’ was our first brush with great literature.
A boy of seven, searching for his bearings in the pitch dark of a confessional, locates the shelf where penitent adults might rest their elbows. He imagines the shelf is for kneeling on and clambers up, telling us he was always a competent climber, from which height he must hang upside down in order to address the bemused priest behind the grille.
As a child of ten or so, I pitched off my school chair in hysterical relief that I wasn’t alone in my fear of mortal sin, or mortal embarrassment, within the shady confines of the confession box. Click to read on, please.
Fermented Food has a bad name. Literally, I mean it’s just not the most appetising of concepts. Sun dried food, for instance, sounds fabulous. Caramelized, similarly, has a good ring to it. Deep fried is fine, salted should be okay, confit is superb and even pickle is good but fermented, nope, it’s just not that appealing.
I studied microbiology in a University at the forefront of research into probiotics but, to my shame, most of what I learned went into a box in the attic and it is only recently that I have become seriously interested in fermented foods.
We are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of realising the health benefits of consuming good quality fermented foods. It’s not just our gut flora that stands to benefit but even our mental health. I’ve just started researching this so you can expect to find me waffling at length. I’m putting a shout out here to anybody with fermenting experience or wisdom to share. Help me; I want to learn!
My kitchen now has more microbial experimentation going on than my laboratory desk ever had.
The sourdough adventure began after last year’s trip to Litfest when I came home with a starter from Riot Rye. Approximately fifty loaves of bread later, I am getting close to something truly good. I’m still not getting the really big air pockets that I’m after but the crust is fantastic.
The banneton proofing basket I bought in Ballymaloe gives those glorious concentric circles. I get a real kick out of using traditional tools that make a good job of something. I have a pair of wooden paddles for rolling butter into balls that make me grin from ear to ear. Simple pleasures.
Also in the above picture is a fresh starter from Arbutus breads which seemed to give my culture a boost.
I made my first sauerkraut when I was reviewing Rebecca Sullivan’s book (The Art of The Natural Home, review here). Can you see all the bubbles rising? It was very exciting to hear the pop when I opened the jar every morning to ‘burp’ it. I did NOT expect to like sauerkraut. I’d never eaten it before but this didn’t taste sour or cabbage-watery as I feared it might. It was more of a nice, crunchy salad with a bit of tang. Also, I thought this huge jar would last for months but no, we ate it all in a couple of days.
Rebecca’s book also had a recipe for making Kombucha so I had my eye out for a starter at Litfest and, yes, I found one. Here it is in the company of some fine cocktails.
Now, I have hit what may be an insurmountable problem. I don’t like it. I don’t like the taste of tea and I don’t like the taste of beer and this stuff, to me, smells like the cart of empty beer bottles that I used to have to sort into crates on Saturday mornings. Eeugh. Any advice? I’m willing to knock it back medicinally but I’d rather find a way to make a pleasant version.
I’m in the process of reviewing a brand new book from Kristin and Christopher Shockey.
Unlike most cookbooks I review, nothing in this one is familiar. It’s all a journey into the unknown which I LOVE! I love learning, I really do.
The first thing I made was a basic chilli mash. This stuff is fantastic; I can’t get enough of it. We’ve probably added it to every second dinner for the past fortnight and I’m on the hunt for chillis on special offer. Again, can you see the bubbles? I’m not sure why I find that SO exciting.
Fermented ginger, fermented carrots and, wait for this, rhubarb kimchi. The kimchi has been a huge hit. Husband made up a second batch yesterday as we have run out.
Figuring out exactly how to eat these foods has been another learning curve. This dinner of pork meatballs with kimchi, fermented carrots and fermented ginger was incredibly tasty and satisfying.
I’ve been having the carrots with my lunch most days. This picture also shows the fermented mustard from Fiery Ferments. It’s made with lots of white peppercorns for extra heat and is, honestly, the most delicious mustard I can remember tasting. The book is good too (review coming soon).
I’ve had a slow growing theory of happiness growing in my head for the last few years which is based on the word satisfaction. I think that our lives, in many large and small ways, have changed beyond how we have biologically evolved to live. Our evolution, in other words, has been outstripped by the developments of modern life.
For this reason, I think, we are never satisfied. We spend hours trawling shoe shops that we once would have spent foraging (that’s my theory anyway). We buy ready-washed, ready-chopped vegetables in plastic bags where once we would have had the satisfaction of watching them grow and ripen. We accept the convenience of high sugar, high fat processed foods but they don’t quell our cravings; they don’t satisfy us. So we eat more.
We’ve done ourselves out of the labour, the learning, the patient waiting, the process of making food, all of which are ingredients in the satisfaction of it. We’ve made it almost impossible to reach that point where we feel yes, I have had sufficient, my appetite has been sated.
There is lots of science now behind the benefits of fermented foods but I think there’s more to it than even that. Taking two days to make a loaf of bread, or two weeks to make a filling for the sandwich, is hardly what could be considered practical. But, it’s flipping satisfying. And there’s a taste, I can’t pin it down but I’m certain of it, there’s a taste that hits a spot in my brain and the only word I can find for it is satisfaction.
I did warn you about impending waffling, didn’t I? Tell me what you think.
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.
Book shopping has always, for as long as I can remember, been the only type of shopping I truly enjoy. I’m very picky when choosing books and have become ever more so. I get quite annoyed with myself when I am suckered by publicity into buying a mediocre book.
When I’m reviewing books, I try to write what it is I like about a book. But, there are some books, the books that rise above the average, that I want to hold up above my head and wave towards you saying, LOOK, this is a book worth your time and money.
A mixed perk/pressure of my book reviewing work is that I can sometimes choose books from a publisher’s advance catalogue but, to do that, I must rely on gut instinct as there are rarely any reliable reviews to help. I am obliged to, lierally, judge a book by its cover. I’m on tenterhooks then, when book post arrives, for fear I will be let down.
In the last month, I have been unexpectedly delighted by two books. Both are far more practical and useful than I could have hoped. More surprisingly, both have made me think deeply about how I am raising this little family of mine.
The first is Feeding a Family by Sarah Waldman. I came across this by happenstance as it had the same publisher (Roost) as Eat This Poem. Obviously, as feeding a family is my primary concern, I was attracted by the title. In just a few short weeks, this book has become the mainstay of our dinner time. It is the best blend of healthy/tasty/practical that I’ve come across in this style of book. Perhaps the best endorsement is that my kids won’t let me give it away. Only one caveat: measurements are mostly in American cups and spoons and sticks of butter, all that malarkey. I have an imperial measure that has both English and American cup markings on it which is dead handy.
Cookbooks are always expensive but, if you are trying to feed a family, particularly a young family, this is a good investment. Read my full review here.
The second is The Art of the Natural Home by Rebecca Sullivan.
This is a book of recipes to make natural (meaning safe, environmentally harmless and, for the most part, even edible) products that most people would never even consider trying to make. Oven cleaner, kitchen spray, food colouring, moisturiser, shampoo, even mascara!
My girls and I got a real kick out of the cosmetics section and I was thrilled by their reaction to it.
Best of all, the products work. This book, genuinely, has the power to change how you think about buying stuff.