Fabulous Five-Minute Blackberry Jam

This is my go-to recipe for blackberry jam. I’ve made ‘real’ jam – which takes all day and leaves you hot and bothered – and then wondered how to get through a dozen jars of jam and ended up pressing them on friends and neighbours. This is so much easier!

Blackberries are early and abundant this year. They’re everywhere and they’re free for the picking – all the best chefs are out there, adding them to the ‘foraged’ list on their menus. They’re also incredibly good for you! Although some of the claims made for them are probably fanciful, it’s true that they are packed with fibre, Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants. If you’re picking them with gusto, a few drops of your own blood adds some additional flavour.

Although they can be a pain for gardeners, blackberries are marvellous for pollinators. The flowers contain huge amount of nectar and pollen and it’s one of the plants that can really make a difference for bees. They may become a medicinal crop too – a student from Cork, Simon Meehan, won the Young Scientist of the Year award in 2018 with his discovery of an antibiotic contained in blackberry brambles.

So what about that jam recipe? And can it really take only five minutes? Yes! Collecting the fruit, in my own garden, took me about ten minutes (mainly because I kept eating the berries as I was picking) but the jam itself took less than five minutes to make. I used two cups (about a pint, or 500ml).

The secret is Chia Seeds – those tiny little black seeds that swell up and jellify when you add moisture. They, like the blackberries, are also very good for you, being full of B Vitamins and minerals.

If you’re concerned about the calories in honey, or want to keep it vegan, leave out the honey (it will just be a little more tart) or use maple syrup or a sugar substitute. Scale up in ratio – that is, for two cups, just double everything, etc.

Pick through them well!

Ingredients

1 cup blackberries

1Tbs Warm water

1 Tbs Honey

1 Tbs Chia Seeds

Method

Pick through the blackberries to remove any sticks or bugs. but don’t wash them. Put all ingredients in a blender and blend until mushified (technical term), or use a hand blender, or just mash everything together really well with a fork. Pour it all into a clean jar (or glass, or yogurt pot) and store in the fridge.

Because this isn’t cooked, you have to keep it in the fridge but it will last for a couple of weeks there. You can also freeze it.

Yum!

Fresh From Sea and Land

Would you like some pollock? It was a friendly fisherman on a West Cork pier we happened to stop on. He had just landed with some friends and family and they had caught a lot of fish, mostly pollock. They couldn’t eat them all, Billy said, just help yourself. A little overcome with such generosity, we selected two lovely fish, and asked for his advice on how to cook them.

Just keep it simple, was his advice, with some dry potatoes and cream. Dry, it turned out, was his term for floury potatoes, and we knew just where to get those. Our neighbour, Donal, keeps a fresh vegetable stall nearby. He digs up or cuts the vegetables in the morning, and puts them in a little stall he built himself. You have to get there early if you want the pick of the crop.

Donal’s new potatoes are legendary. I was chatting with a friend who lives nearby recently and we were talking about the best way to lose the Covid weight. It’s all about the carbs, I said – pasta, rice, flour, sugar, potatoes … A look of horror came over her face. “But not Donal’s new potatoes!” We agreed that they couldn’t possibly be anything but healthy and whatever list of Bad Carbs we made, Donal’s New Potatoes could not be on it.

So on the way home from the pier, we dropped by the stall for the potatoes. While I was at it I picked up some carrots, courgettes (Zucchini to this ex-Canadian) and onions. 

I don’t know about you, but I have never actually gutted, cleaned and filleted a fish before. In fact, I have been awestruck by the expertise of the women at the fish stall in the Skibbereen market and their skill with that long, thin-bladed filleting knife. Where to start? YouTube, of course!

So with the computer propped up beside me, and Robert sharpening the knife and encouraging me every step of the messy way, I managed it. I will spare you most of the gory details and include this one that actually looks like I know what I am doing.

Although I probably left good meat behind, at last I had a lovely set of fillets, free of bones. 

After that, it was a question of cutting some vegetable into small pieces – I used carrots, shallots, broccoli, green beans, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and garlic. 

I piled them all onto a big sheet of buttered tinfoil, along with herbs from my little herb patch, and then laid the fillets on top. 

I poured lots of lemon juice over it all, along with zest, and dotted everything with more butter. Then I wrapped it up, and into the oven it went at 190C for 20 minutes.

The potatoes were simply boiled with some mint from my garden. I chopped more mint to scatter on top once they were cooked.

The results? Delicious!

In West Cork we have access to a lot of very fresh food and we eat well. There are markets in all the towns and villages near us (see this post from a few years ago), and Neighbourfood does a great job of keeping us going all year round. 

But there’s something extra special in a meal like this – straight from the ocean or the ground and onto a plate with very little intervention. 

Mmmmmm…

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Haven’t you always wanted to have one?

When the occasion arose for a celebration – the publication of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass – we knew exactly what we wanted. We don’t know yet when we can have a launch of the book in Dublin, but it might be the autumn before it can happen, so Robert and I decided that a little local jollification was in order.

We know what Tracy and Peter could do. They’re the Long Island Wild Camping couple who organised the Wildflower Walk and who will do picnics or catering for you on Long Island. Tracy’s eyes lit up when we were talking about her idea of doing ‘proper’ high teas on the island and my need for a celebration, and the plan was conceived.

Twelve of us were conveyed to the Island by Maurice and Helen of the Long Island Ferry, and Glory Be! – the sun shone all day for us. It’s a short walk along boreens fringed with blooming hedgebanks to the East House, and what a sight awaited us there*!

Tracy had created a Long Island version of a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! It looked magnificent, quirky, fantastical, sumptuous. Real china – her grandmother’s – lots of glass, a chandelier, old-fashioned cutlery (remember those bone handles?), lanterns, decanters, tiered cake stands – all ranged along a long table covered in vintage tablecloths. The table was set out in a hollow in their amazing garden and it looked like something out of Wonderland.

There were mojito mocktails to start with (yum!) and then it was down to the serious business of eating. Pretty well everything was homemade, including all the scones and buns, or from their garden (cucumbers, strawberries, jam) or locally sourced (smoked salmon).

And just when you thought you couldn’t fit in any more, out came two enormous bowls of trifle accompanied by their own strawberries.

I couldn’t have asked for a better, tastier, more unique or memorable way to celebrate. And here’s the thing – you can do this too! Tracy and Peter can organise this kind of tea party for you, or meet you with a picnic after your day of exploring Long Island, or feed you a cream tea in their garden. Just give them a shout.

A few final photos to convey the fun and fabulousness of it all.

*Thanks to Amanda Clarke and Robert for most of these photographs

Through The Big Gap

It’s October: autumn light is playing on the skies and seas as we set out to cross the Sheep’s Head peninsula on a path which is new to us. The path traverses the backbone of this peninsula – a ridge which is virtually continuous from east to west – and runs from Rooska, a settlement beside Bantry Bay on the Northside, heading south for Coomkeen and then Durrus. Before we take to the hills, however, we need to prepare ourselves with some sublime scenery en-route, a little excursion into vernacular architecture, and an encounter with local expertise.

From upper – a Sheep’s Head pastoral, the view over Glanlough towards distant Beara; a perfect composition in tin and stone; a niche for offerings? Looking to the ridge – and The Big Gap – in the distance; Joe O’Driscoll with his architectural egg-box. Unfortunately the hens are not laying at the moment!

We are heading to the start of our climb and find a busy settlement, historically once a mining centre and now home to a major award winning seafood producer, bravely weathering the Covid storms. It’s worth a look at their colourful website! You might not expect to see such a venture on the wild and remote Sheep’s Head Northside, but it’s a great boost to a fragile local economy. We wish them well in surviving the Covid19 crisis. Parking up at Rooska, we get first sight of the zig-zagging route that will take us over towards Durrus, passing through The Big Gap at the summit of the hill.

Upper – looking north across Bantry Bay from the path; middle – from the south, the path descends through The Big Gap; lower – the path can be seen on the right cutting through the hills: the highest point is 200m above sea level

I tried in vain to find a name for the way we followed. I would like to have called this post The Mass Path, which is given to it on a modern guide, and it does seem probable to us that one purpose of the trackway would have been to take Northside dwellers over to the old Catholic church at Chapel Rock in Durrus, a distance of 7 kilometres (or four and a half miles in older times). There and back would have been a taxing walk for a Sunday morning on an empty stomach (you have to fast from midnight before taking communion)! However, we were told locally that our intended way will lead us through The Big Gap, hence my title.

This view over the Northside area of Rooska, above, shows several features and the beginning of the path over the mountain heading south. Notable is Killoveenoge Church, known as a ‘Chapel of Ease’ and said to have been built in the 1860s specifically for the English and Cornish miners who were working in the nearby silver and lead mines at the time. There are scant remains of these mines now, and the Church of Ireland building was closed in 1988 and converted to a studio.

Looking down on Killoveenoge Church from The Big Gap path, with Bantry Bay beyond

The townland name Killoveenoge translates as Church of the Young Women and the only explanation of this I could find suggests that the site was anciently a priory, sacked by the Vikings in 890AD. It is also said that some ruins of this are visible, but we failed to find them – nor any factual historic records. The Schedule of Monuments notes a circular burial ground in the west of the townland with early grave markers, but nothing more. Clearly folk memory transcends recorded history, and that is one of the attractions of Ireland – to us, at least.

Upper – The Sheep’s Head Way trails have a strict code, which benefits all users; middle – the ruins of a cottage almost lost in the furze. The mining records mention a ‘miner’s cottage’ still being visible: could this be it? Lower – gaining height as the path gets steeper: that’s Whiddy Island in the distance

The wider aerial view shows the full length of the old trackway as it crosses the mountain through The Big Gap. Just past the summit when heading south is another landmark, also holding a folk memory. Lough Na Fuilla translates as ‘Lake of the Blood’:

A reed-filled lake suddenly appears; so many different greens, so far from anywhere and the gentle murmuring of the reeds all combine to make a rather unsettling atmosphere . . . Maybe it’s knowing the name of the lough, Loch Na Fuilla, lough of the blood, that plays tricks on the mind. There is a story attached, of course. One extremely hot summer the cattle came down from the mountain in search of water. The lough was empty. Maddened with disappointment and thirst the cattle went berserk and attacked each other and many were killed.

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Amanda and peter Clarke – Wildways Press 2015
Lough Na Fuilla, and a nearby tarn on the east side of the trackway. The autumn colours are sublime

Neither the Lake of the Blood nor the nearby tarn are shown on the early OS maps. The few remaining mining records, however, mention that there was some prospecting activity up on the ridge: could this have relevance? And is this another reason for the existence of this path? We are impressed with the views from The Big Gap both north and south. We temporarily divert on to a stony sheep path to get even higher, and to find the best panoramas. From the ridge we also record the contrasting light and shadow effects from a constantly changing sky.

We pause to wonder whether a large rounded outcrop is the Eagle’s Rest which is mentioned by local historian Willie Dwyer, of Rooska:

The gap going through the mountain there, by Loch na Fuilla, the locals always called it, that’s the old people who are dead and gone now, used to call it “Barna Mhór” which means “The Big Gap”, and on the right-hand side (the north-west corner) before you come to the extreme top of the track, there’s a round bald rock which was known as “the Eagle’s Rest”. I don’t know how long the eagles have been gone out of this part of the country, but it must have been a long time ago. This is a tradition now, it has been passed down as tradition, how true or false it is, I can’t prove to you.

Willie Dwyer, Quoted by TOM WHITTY in ‘A guide to the Sheep’s Head way’ 2003

From The Big Gap it’s downhill all the way! As we walk south it’s the Mizen which is always on the horizon, across the waters of Dunmanus Bay.

As we approach the southern end of the trackway crossing the mountain, we look back up towards Barna Mhór – The Big Gap. It has been a most rewarding adventure for us, and one which we intend to repeat at other times of the year so that we can capture the effects of the changing seasons.

Savoury Soda Bread – Easiest Ever

We’ve all become hyper-conscious about bread these days as we socially isolate. In the early days of the stockpiling panic (which seems to be over, thank goodness) there was very little bread on the shelves of one of our local supermarkets. No problem, says I, I’ll just make it. That’s when we discovered there was no flour either!

A quick forage in the garden produced some fennel fronds and rosemary, but you can use whatever you have to hand

But everything resolved itself in time and we got our supplies. Now that we are in true lockdown, the desire to make our own bread has increased so I have been baking this exceptionally easy soda bread which also happens to be one of the tastiest! I honestly can’t remember where I got the recipe but I have adjusted it a bit over time and added my own flavours, depending on what’s in my herb bed or my fridge.

This is a more traditional soda bread, made with butter and buttermilk and with dried fruit.

The thing about this bread is that it can be fruity, like a classic ‘cake of curranty bread’ or savoury – just depends what you add to it. I am giving you the savoury twist, but leave out the cheese and herbs and add in 150g of dried fruit (sultanas, mixed, or whatever you’re having yourself) and you have the traditional tea bread. You can have it with no add-ins and it’s delicious that way too. Most soda bread recipes have you rubbing butter into flour and then adding buttermilk. Indeed that makes delicious bread (like the photograph above) but if you don’t have the time, or the buttermilk, you don’t need either for this bread.

Ingredients
500g white flour
1 tsp  salt
1 tsp baking soda (bicarbonate)
300ml yoghurt (regular or Greek-style, but not low fat and not flavoured)
200ml whole milk
Herbs – 1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped
75g grated cheddar or other sharp cheese (2 or 3 tablespoons)

For this version I used some fennel and rosemary, which I happened to have in my garden, but chives would work or any herb such as thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, dill – as long as it’s chopped fine.

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas mark 6/400F. Put the baking tray in to heat it up (this makes sure the bottom is nice and crusty).

Stir milk and yogurt together well. Finely chop the herbs and grate the cheese (or use pre-grated).

Combine the flour with the soda and salt and sift into a bowl. Stir in the cheese and herbs.

Make a well and pour in the combined yogurt and milk and stir until it comes together into a rough ball.

There’s no need to do any kneading. In fact, the less you handle it the better. Just turn the ball onto a sheet of parchment paper, pat it into a round shape and cut a deep X in the centre. The X is to let the fairies out – they’ll mess with your bread otherwise.

Fetch the hot baking tray from the oven and place the bread, on its parchment paper, on the tray. Don’t stress if you forgot to heat the tray first – it will be fine without that step.

Bake for 45 minutes. It should be well risen and a rich golden colour. Let it cool a little on a wire rack.

As with all soda bread, this is best eaten the day it’s made. It is a great accompaniment to soup or stew, or have it with cheese and chutney at coffee break or with jam at tea time. It is almost as good the second day if you wrap it up well overnight. If you still have some left after that, toast it, or cut and freeze it.

Sorry, I don’t have a gluten-free version of this, but would be interested to hear from anyone who can make successful GF soda bread. I’ve seen some recipes on the internet but I have no experience of how well they work. I also have not converted this to North American measures  as I have seen so many different equivalents that I wasn’t sure how many cups of flour to specify. Give it a try and enjoy! And don’t forget to let the fairies out.

Heir Island Bread School – Revisited

A version of this post was originally written way back in 2013 but guess what? Patrick and Laura are still running their bread school on Heir Island, and are about to add a new one in Wicklow too. This is a live-in-the-memory experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone. Makes a great Christmas present! Check out The Firehouse website for more details and to register your interest – these course sell out fast! The bakery/cafe is now based in Delgany, Co Wicklow, and is a superb, and award-winning, spot for coffee or lunch.

What follows now is the post from 2103, but edited and updated. Apologies for the photo quality, these were my pre-proper camera days. But Robert and I, you will not be surprised to hear, don’t look a day older. Right?

January 2013: We got the most incredible Christmas present from Noah, Robert’s son! It was a day of learning to bake bread at the Firehouse Bakery on Heir Island, about a 20 minutes drive from Ard Glas. While Robert had some experience of baking with yeast, I had none, and considered myself yeast-phobic.

Our day started at 10:00AM with the short ferry ride to the  Island. (For more on Heir Island, see our post Heir Island – a Modern Paradise). We were picked up by Laura Moore who drove us back to the house/school/bakery and plied us with coffee and brownies to get us in the mood. The baker/instructor is Patrick Ryan, who ran his own bakery in Bath, England, and has written the inspirational The Bread Revolution with his bakery partner. He plunged us right into the process by introducing his four students to our bowl of sourdough, explaining what is was and how it worked. Patrick is passionate about sourdough and making real bread and feels many wheat and gluten intolerances (other than Coeliac Disease, of course) may be related to modern mass-baking methods.

Then it was all mixing and kneading and scraping until we had a loose ball of dough which was set aside to prove while we got on with the next project – in my case a granary ‘bloomer’ and pull-apart buns and in Robert’s some baguettes.

We moved on from there to muffins, flowerpot bread, orange cake, brownies, cookies and soda bread. I thought I was on more solid ground with whole wheat soda bread but this was soda with a twist – each of us made a different version. We made thyme, mustard and cheddar; apple and cider with caraway; honey, blue cheese and walnuts; and roast butternut squash and cheddar and each version took different shapes, including mini-muffin shapes.

All our bread was baked in Patrick’s custom-built outdoor oven, heated by burning logs inside it. At the end of the day we sat around a table eating Laura’s excellent soup and pasta – she had been cooking away all day as we were baking – with samples of our own bread. We divided all the bread between the four of us and headed back to the ferry. We have a freezer full of bread, a fistful of recipes, directions for sourdough starter, a sense of accomplishment, and memories of a warm and friendly learning atmosphere. What I don’t have? Yeast-phobia!