Thursday, 29 March 2012

Moving to the Country

Twenty years ago I moved from Lancaster in the U.K to a tiny, picturesque village in north County Meath. At the time I said, "six weeks and I am gone".  I was sure I would hate life in the country being a Dublin girl through and through.  It was a huge culture shock at the time as the selection of food available in local shops was light years behind what we were used to in England.  The only bread available was the ubiquitous sliced pan as this was even pre-Cuisine de France.  The first time we had a power cut I realised with complete shock that we had no water.  When you grow up with mains water you don't appreciate how much you take it for granted.  Quite apart from power cuts we have had various trials and tribulations with the pump (for pumping our water up from the well). Last winter the pump froze and the pipe carrying water into the house froze.  Two summers ago our well ran dry.  Before this, one very dry year I had to drive to the village to fill up 20 litre containers from the village pump for the horses as I was worried the well would run dry.  The following summer I went to do the same again but this time the local tidy towns committee had hung hanging baskets from the pump and the water was disconnected.  It makes me laugh when city dwellers moan about paying for water.  Well when you have none, you would gladly pay, as believe me carrying containers of it is no fun.  We always have to be mindful of wasting it and we never flush loos unless absolutely necessary.  You get very conscious of recycling water and in summer I use washing up water to water plants.  Baths are out in summer and they become a huge luxury in winter.

The next big shock was the septic tank.  The whole concept of it was really horrible to me.  Especially as it had gone for so long unused to sudden heavy use and it couldn't cope.  The house was built over 200 years ago and I am not sure of the age of the septic tank- but it is old.  The local farmer arrived with his slurry spreader and emptied it and then sprayed it over the rest of our fields.  Thank goodness we weren't growing anything!

Local knowledge was another shock and by local knowledge I mean the locals all knowing you and you not having a clue who they are.  I regularly arrived back to my car parked in the village and found my post left on the passenger seat as it saved the postman a trip out our road.  When I went to order coal in the village another time I payed for it and the shop assistant walked off down the shop so I stood waiting for her to come back and get the delivery address.  When eventually she came back she asked me did I want anything else.  So I said "do you not want my address"?  She immediately said my married surname and then "yes we know where you are".  Another time I went to collect my kids from school and there was a funeral.  The graveyard is beside the school.  The place was black with cars and there was no way of driving down to the school.  My kids were small at the time and I did not want to leave them waiting so I jumped out of the car, leaving it in the traffic jam and ran down to the school.  When I got back the traffic jam had cleared and my car had been "lifted" out of the way and was neatly parked at the side of the road!

Our address caused more trouble.  We have no house number or name, no street address just the name of our townland.  I am not sure how many townlands there are around the village but some of the names are lovely, Carrickspringan, Rathbawn and Feagh in particular.  Some townlands would have a larger number of houses than others.  It is impossible trying to explain this to Dubliners never mind anyone outside the country and trying to order anything on line where they insist you enter a postcode is a huge problem.  I usually get away with NONE in capitals or XXXX.

Now when the kids have left home people ask me would I not be better off to move back to the city.  But when I sit in traffic in Dublin at any time of the day fuming and wondering how long it can take to move a couple of miles; I think not.  At least I know when I have to be in the local town at a particular time that it will take me 10 minutes - unless I get stuck behind a tractor.  I know that I can open my patio doors and lie naked in my garden and not be overlooked by anyone.  I have acres around the house that can't be built on and is available for my use if I so wish.  And I have a lovely garden where I can grow my own vegetables.  So why change all this for a suburban house with a postage stamp garden? 

A typical village house
View of the village a good few years ago judging by the cars!

My house

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Time for Tea with Lemon Curd Cake

When I was a child we had our main meal in the middle of the day, but this changed when we all started school.  But at the weekends we reverted back - when dinner was at lunchtime and then tea was in the evening. Tea time was always associated with manic baking by my mother as well as doing a hundred other things at the same time.  Now I remember her complaining about the lunacy of doing this especially as I seem to do the exact same thing - often leading to disastrous results.  She used to make a type of wholemeal yeast bread with molasses as well as the traditional soda bread - and for a treat a white soda with dried fruit.  Then she would make fruit scones, apple tart and to finish a cake - coffee, chocolate or even lemon or orange.  This was all after a salad-type start with salad leaves, always butter head (iceberg hadn't made an appearance at this stage), scallions, ham, tomato, boiled egg and cheese probably "air" on the cheddar variety!  Looking back I don't know how we weren't obese but surprisingly none of us were.  During the week we always had pudding which could have been anything from eve's pudding and variations there of - to apple tart or pavlova on a special occasion.  I remember moaning that all our cakes were homemade and we never had "proper" shop-bought cakes like my friends had and which to me were far more desirable!  Occasionally my mother would succombe and buy a Tea Time Express but she would always pronounce it "sawdust"!  As a treat she would buy a coffee log or Bewleys cherry buns as she acknowledged they were "almost" as good as hers!

Another treat was lemon curd as we always had her jam.  I loved lemon curd and often make it myself now I have my own eggs.  I make a Victoria sponge and sandwich it with some of my lemon curd and dust with icing sugar.

The recipe I use for lemon curd comes from a book my aunt bought in a car boot sale in the UK and gave to me, called Cordon Bleu Preserving.  It is a fantastic book and has all sorts of old-fashioned recipes for preserves.

Lemon Curd Recipe
Grated rind and juice of 2 large lemons
75g butter
225g lump sugar (I have no idea what this is I use ordinary sugar)         
3 eggs beaten

Put the lemon rind and juice in a double saucepan (bain marie), add the butter and heat gently, then add the sugar.  Strain the beaten eggs into the pan.  Stir over heat until mixture is thick, then pour into warm, dry jars.  Cover and tie down.

Victoria Sponge
225g softened butter
225g sugar
4 medium eggs
225g white spelt flour or plain wheat flour
1 heaped tsp. baking powder

Cream butter and sugar together until white and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time and continue beating.  Sift in flour and baking powder and fold in with a metal spoon.  Line two sandwich tins and place in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 4 or 180C.  Bake until the centre springs back to a light touch and the cake has shrunk in from the edge of tin.   Cool and sandwich with the lemon curd.  Dust the top with icing sugar and use a lemon zester to make some curly lemon zest decorations and place in centre.  Keep in a cool place if not eaten straight away.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Fox and The Gander

We first got hens here 14 years ago when my son moved to a new primary school in the next village. There was a craze in the school at that time with many of the kids keeping hens.  It was the usual story - "but mum everyone has them - can I not get some too?"  The hens were just the beginning and were rapidly followed by ducks and geese.   At that time we also had two ponies, my cob, a dog and numerous cats.  The hens, ducks and geese were duly installed into an old wooden playhouse which the kids had outgrown and we built a make-shift run around it.  As with every animal that sets a hoof, paw or a claw here they got the run of the place (excuse the pun). They viewed the make-shift run as jail but for me it was a necessary evil; when I got fed up of having to search a huge garden for their latest favourite place to lay -  usually in the hedge but also in the stable or in the wood shed.

The geese were a magnificent pair and soon produced a gosling much to the delight of the kids especially as it was the gander that took control of the parenting. They were absolutely fascinated that the daddy took such an active role.  The gander was wicked and took great delight in chasing anyone and everyone dumb enough to enter "his" territory.  My mother and my daughter were chased up the field by him.  My mother was terrified and this was a woman who grew up with wicked turkeys and whose best friend was afraid to call for her to walk to school. Unfortunately the gosling met an untimely end under a visiting van.  The gander got some sort of stroke (possibly after a failed fox attack) and lost the use of his legs.  I took him into a very bemused vet who told me I had to try and get him to exercise the legs or he would never regain use of them.  I cut a hole in a toy deck chair and sat him in it everyday and he paddled his legs and got a work out.  He recovered surprisingly well.  The ducks were given an old plastic sandpit converted into a pool and made a huge mess everywhere but were great fun and lovely to look at waddling about.

The eggs were a bonus despite all the hassle particularly the goose eggs which made the most amazing deep yellow sponges. For a number of years we had a plentiful supply of the freshest, tastiest eggs but gradually a bit of laziness and work and other commitments meant we were not as dutiful as we should have been in locking them in at night and Mr. Fox was quick to take advantage.  Little by little he reduced my stock until finally he finished off the gander (by this stage he had got the goose).  It was easier not to bother replacing them but I really missed the eggs.  If I ever saw a sign advertising eggs for sale and it was obvious the hens producing them were free to roam then I was first in line to buy them.

A few years ago I decided I missed "real" eggs so decided to get hens and ducks again.  Last summer a fox (vixen as I later found out) made several attacks in broad daylight.  She got a couple of ducks and another time ran across in full view of my kitchen window snapping at the tail feathers of my rooster.  She managed to get a hen another time.  Poultry are a nuisance despite what people say as the fox is an ever present threat.  You need to organise someone to lock them in if you are not going to be home soon after dark, they need a decent amount of space to roam and plenty of grass and vegetation.  They are extremely dirty and they are a menace in a newly planted garden casually scratching new plants to one side in order to root out bugs.  However, the up side of this is they are great slug busters and chicken poo makes great manure.  The eggs are really amazing and there is not a shop bought egg - free range or organic that comes close to the flavour, colour or freshness.

My Cuckoo Maran rooster

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Why I Don't Want to Eat GMO

Do I actually know anything about GMO foods?  For that matter does anyone?  We all just assume that the boffins (as known as scientists) have our best interests at heart - but do they?  First off I had to look up a definition of GMO foods.  I had a vague notion that the process involves transferring genes from one organism to another to produce desirable qualities in the resulting genetically modified plant.  These desirable qualities can be, among others, resistance to a particular disease for example, meaning that the yield of the crop would be increased.  A brief search yielded the following link

Modern agriculture has for decades concentrated on growing small numbers of plant varieties that are primarily high yielding.  Selective breeding has been carried out so that many old varieties of crops have been cast aside.  Seed Savers have done some amazing work to try to reintroduce and save these old varieties.  The problem with mass-growing of specially selected, high-yielding crops is that should a new pest or disease get hold the losses can be devastating.  For this reason the crops need to be sprayed with a cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers.  The pro GMO lobby will tell you that the new genetically modified varieties will need less spraying and so will be better for you and for the environment.  However, many of the varieties of plants discarded have better flavour, taste and in some cases are even more resistant to disease but are not high yielding. 

The natural environment is a very finely balanced ecosystem and if disrupted, the consequences can be serious.  I don't believe that there has been enough research carried out on ensuring introduction of genetically modified crops will have minimum impact on the environment or the delicate balance of the ecosystem.  What impact these crops will have on the animals they are fed to or in turn what impact will they have on us - the end consumer?  After all BSE was caused by feeding animal remains to animals that were natural herbivores.

Apparently Teagasc are about to start trials on GM potatoes to increase late blight resistance.  This is unbelievable especially with the recent furore over the raw milk debacle.  The reason the department of agriculture gave me for wanting to ban raw milk was to prevent any damage to the image of Ireland as a clean, green and tuberculosis-free producer of milk especially to our export market. It would make a lot more sense to promote our image as a GMO-free producer of food.

On balance, I made a decision a long time ago that I did not want to be a guinea pig for the biotech industries' trials on GM foods.  I avoid all soya as over 60% is genetically modified and it is virtually impossible to guarantee that any source is completely GM free.  Maize apparently is also genetically modified.  I heard years ago that tomato puree is made with GM tomatoes.  But far more difficult to avoid is eating meat from animals fed genetically modified cereals in meal.  For now there is not enough public demand for such meat or even if there was there are not enough producers.  One thing for sure though, is if the demand were to increase, the industry should want to zealously guard the image of Ireland as a clean green GMO free producer of food!

Monday, 5 March 2012

Going Back in Time in Sligo

Every year my family try to organise a weekend we all get together.  We are scattered over four counties and all have busy lives so to get a weekend that suits everyone can often take some organisation.  To date we have stayed in Galway (Connemara Coast), Waterford (Faithlegg), Leitrim (Ramada and Lough Rynn) among others.  We have been doing this now for probably the last 10 years.

This weekend gone we went to Markree Castle in Sligo.  It is a stunning place, totally unspoilt and a really authentic experience - down to the dodgy boot-camp showers, cool bedrooms (temperature-wise) and the threat of an appearance by the resident ghost!  It is a throw-your-boots-off and throw-your-leg-up on the coffee table, type of place! The drawing rooms are filled with elegant ancestral paintings, huge fireplaces and big comfortable old couches.  I spent most of the weekend wandering around in my socks.  They allow dogs which is lovely and there were a mixed assortment from pooches to big smelly hounds including my sisters's totally mad border terrier. The bedrooms are a real surprise; I had a big "frilly" (my brother's description) four poster bed in a lovely room with the most amazing view.  It had some very interesting antique furniture as well.  The other bedrooms were not quite as impressive but they were quirky.  One had steep steps down to the en suite - I could imagine a few worse-for-wear guests found that a challenge in the middle of the night!

View from the knot garden
Main entrance

The beauty of the place was that we all felt as if we could really make ourselves at home and as if we were the only guests (even though it was full on the Saturday night).  The staff were mostly eastern European and were efficient as they tend to be but they lacked the real charm and friendliness of the Irish staff or the willingness to think "sideways".  One late night barman when asked for a pot of tea answered "it is not my service to provide".  The bar and the whole place was empty by this time and we were the only stragglers left.  We wanted nibbles earlier before dinner and were unable to get them so one of our party drove to the local filling station.  However we did feel that if we arrived in with our own wine and nibbles we would not have been challenged.
My bedroom

View from my window
The food while not bad was not great either but I am always accused of being the critic from hell.  The garnish was very dated with piped swirls of mashed potato and the side orders of veg were the usual unadorned lumps of broccoli, carrots and very roasted - roast potatoes.  Some of the family had the steak the first night and said it was really good and to be fair when I had it, I asked for it - "walked through a warm room," and they obliged!  We had little option but to eat in the hotel both nights as we had young children with us and we would have needed a fleet of taxis to go the 15-20 minute drive into Sligo.  They screwed up on the gluten-free request for my brother giving him the correct bread but a non gluten-free sausage and a triangle of toast under his scrambled egg.  Oh, and the tea was dire at breakfast, but this is coming from a family of tea leaf users, with the tea pot scalded and the milk in first brigade. 

Overall the experience was very positive and we all agreed we would be very happy to go back again.  It could have been amazing though and that makes me sad.  There was no sign of either the owners or even a general manager all weekend and one or two staff cover both the reception, the bar and the bar food service so when you go to order drinks you had to go look for someone!  However, all that said we had a great time and are already looking forward to another get together.

The very elegant dining room
We spent a lovely morning in Sligo pottering about the great selection of foodie and craft shops.  We had lunch in Hargadons, a pub decorated with every imaginable accolade outside.  They were justified, as the food was great, the service fantastic and so friendly and the atmosphere charming. After lunch we had a bracing walk on the beach at Rosses Point.  On Sunday we went to Tobercurry as my father had worked there over 50 years before as a newly qualified accountant.  Then onto Tarmonbarry to the fantastic Purple Onion for lunch (another well decorated establishment).