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!

New Year Resolutions 2019

Note of explanation from Finola and Robert: the Blog has taken on a mind of its own and decided he needs to make some resolutions for 2019.  He has asked us, his slaves faithful staff, to record these, as a means of keeping him accountable. Ours not to question why, ours but to do or die, so here goes, in his own words. . .

The Black Valley, Kerry

1. Spend more time in Kerry

It’s only next door, after all, and it’s in Finola’s blood, since her grandmother came from Killarney and she still has lots of lovely family there. So I’m determined they will take me there on outings a bit more often this year. There’s an ulterior motive too – you, my faithful readers, know that I often cosy up to that cheerful little Bloguette Holy Wells of Cork: she’s running out of wells in Cork but is enthusiastic about the idea that we can go jaunting off together on Kerry adventures.

2. Incorporate more music

I have to let you in on a secret – Robert is forever promising to learn new tunes for me, but then he comes up with all kinds of excuses why he’s not getting on with it. He’s too busy, it’s too hard, it’s not in the right key, blah, blah, blah. He’s finally sort-of learned this one, after weeks. We live in the heart of Irish traditional music – come on, people!

Staff member Robert trying to get it right – it’s called Pearl O’Shaughnessy’s Barn Dance, learned from Clare concertina player Mary MacNamara

3. Get on with that Saints and Soupers story

Honestly, that Finola, she leads us deep into this fascinating study of whether or not that Fisher guy was a saint or a souper, and then she goes off on one of her tangents about stained glass or wildflowers or whatever. I’m dying to know what happens next, so I’m going to have to lean on her to put the nose to the grindstone and get back to all those Protestants and Catholics and the actual famine part.

Michael the Archangel fights the devil – a powerful good versus evil metaphor in Altar Church

4. Get out to the Islands

It’s called Carberry’s Hundred Isles, for goodness sake – we can see them from the house (like Sarah Palin and Russia). Time to travel to more of them and get to know them. 

South Harbour on Cape Clear

I’ve been polishing up my Irish (or Blirish, as we Blogs like to say) and I need the practice, so Cape Clear needs to be on the agenda. I hear they have a good Blirish program out there, so ar aghaigh linn!

Staff member Finola and her sister on Cape Clear this summer

5. Finish the Fastnet Trail walks

This is a bit of a hangover resolution from previous years when I vowed to do all the Fastnet trails, but got a bit distracted with other walks and other projects. Besides, they’re adding to them all the time so if I don’t get off my desk and get out there soon the job will just get bigger and bigger.

Kilcoe Castle can be seen from several of the Fastnet Trails

6. Find more places to have breakfast

My staff loves going out for breakfast and I must say I am very partial to a nice plate of avocado toast and smoked salmon, with a good pot of tea to wash it down (although those two insist on lattés). They took me to the Box of Frogs in Bantry recently, and despite my misgivings about the name (I had a bad experience with a toad once) I had to admit the food was excellent. But, like all the humans I meet recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of eating less meat so I will persuade them to go to Antiquity Bookshop Café in Skibbereen for their tasty vegan food more often. BUT. . . see next resolution

Nicola surrounded by her stock in trade in Antiquity, West Cork’s first vegan café

7. Read the books!

The staff keep bringing more books (especially from Antiquity) into the house and they pile up beside me, making me feel guilty that I’m not keeping up. They built a new set of shelves and they are already filled. Honestly, in this day and age, you’d think someone would have invented some kind of scanner-to-brain technology so that Blogs like me wouldn’t have to work so hard.

Just one shelf – yikes!

I have more, but the experts say not to make too many. Right, friends – a little encouragement and I’m sure I will be fine, despite all the malingering and complaining of my staff. Onwards and upwards into 2019!

Maura Laverty and Kind Cooking

My friend Viv has loaned me her precious copy of Kind Cooking, given to her way back in 1977 by her mother-in-law, Molly – a wonderful matriarchal figure of my youth. It has plunged me back into the world of Irish cookbooks that I first explored with my posts on Monica Sheridan (Monica’s Kitchen, Back to Monica (about her famous Christmas cake recipe) and Monica Rides Again). Except this time it’s Maura Laverty, who predated Monica and who first established that bright, amusing, anecdotal style of food-writing that still defines the genre.

To open Kind Cooking is to be immediately reminded that Maura Laverty was, first and foremost, a writer. Author of several novels and later in life of a highly successful television soap opera, Tolka Row, she made her living as a writer at a time when it was not easy for a woman to do so. While I want to concentrate on Kind Cooking here, you can read in the Irish Times an excellent summary of her life by Seamus Kelly, author of The Maura Laverty Story: from Rathangan to Tolka Row which was launched to much acclaim earlier this year. (The book is available in shops and directly from the author. Enquiries to james.a.kelly55@gmail.com)

Seamus Kelly with son, Peter, and daughter, Laura, launching ‘The Maura Laverty Story’ in Rathangan Community Centre. Photo by Tony Keane

Most people in Ireland would be more familiar with Maura’s Full and Plenty, still a vivid memory from our mothers’ row of cookbooks, and for some a much-thumbed staple. It was her best seller and the food book she is still most remembered for.

This image is courtesy of the lovely food blog Eating for Ireland – the author uses it (her Mum’s copy) to make Apple Betty

Kind Cooking was published first in 1946. There is no date on Viv’s copy, but it is possible that it was given free when you bought an electric cooker, since it was published by The Electricity Supply Board. Although this one has no illustrations, subsequent issues had this photograph. Anyone can cook, apparently, with one of these new all-electric kitchens! 

It was published several times again, including an edition with the new title Maura Laverty’s Cookbook. One edition was brought out by The Kerryman, with a section on diet by Sybil le Brocquy and ‘decorations’ by her son, Louis le Brocquy.

From the start, the emphasis is on a warm, chatty, non-intimidating approach to cooking and on traditional recipes  – barm brack and soda bread, rowanberry jam, Irish custard, champ (although she calls it Thump), liver loaf (a friend of mine, working as a camp cook, was once fired for feeding this to a gang of road-builders) and lots of organ meats – tongue and mushroom, anyone? I will spare you a description of how to make a delicious and nutritious broth from a whole sheep’s head – even she calls it a ghastly, cannibalistic business.

Part of the index – including a whole section on rabbit

But Maura had lived abroad and had developed a taste for garlic, French onion soup, Swedish and Danish meat balls, Spanish rabbit. Hamburgers (called hamburghers) could also be made into Hamburg stew and hamburgher rolls. Some recipes contain ingredients we don’t use any more – anyone know what griskins are? How about forcemeat?

I wonder how this accords with our modern food pyramids

She wasn’t above convenience cooking, although she does warn you, in the introduction to her Corned Beef Hash, There is an enduring something about tinned corned beef that makes it as easy to detect as a legless fugitive with cauliflower ears and a cast in his eye. Disguise it how you will, your tin will find you out. Still, you can always try.

One of Louis le Brocquy’s ‘decorations’

It is this – the conversational, anecdotal tone, that Maura pioneered and that made her cookbooks so entertaining and beloved. You can sit and read them for pleasure as easily as you can use them to find a recipe. Her Fowl section starts with a two page story about Mag Donnelly – I am sharing it with you in full, below, as an example of the delights within these covers.

Since you’re probably thinking of Christmas dinner around now, I should tell you Maura’s secret to choosing a good turkey: Nice smooth black legs with short spurs and limber, moist feet are signs of youth and beauty in a turkey. Look into its eye. They should be full and bright. A turkey with sunken, bleary eyes is definitely unsuited to roasting.

You can just imagine her telling you about how to choose a turkey – Listen to me now

She’s a big fan of vegetables. In our place she says, we were acquainted with only six kinds of vegetables: onions, cabbage, turnips, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes and potatoes steamed in the baker. The only people who grew such rarities as peas, beans, parsnips and carrots were the Protestant peelers. . . Their vegetable growing, in common with their Sunday school and their red, white and blue badges, was part and parcel of Protestantism and foreign aggression and we felt it couldn’t be good or lucky.

Cheese, especially good cheese or anything foreign, was a bit of a rarity when I was growing up. When Maura was a child it was all but unknown. Introduced to good cheddar she developed a passion for it. Since she was wondering at the time if she had a vocation as a nun, she felt it was important to ask her favourite teacher, Sister Mary Declan:

“Would Reverend Mother let you go to the press for bread and cheese any time you’d take the notion?”

Sister Mary Declan’s eyes grew round in her wrinkled face, and her eyebrows climbed up under her coif in horror.

“In heaven’s name, child,” she cried, “what kind of a poor excuse for a nun would I want to be to go gratifying my sinful appetites in such a manner?”

. . . She would be sorry to know that her reaction to my question about the cheese killed the vocation stone dead in me.

I will leave you with a couple of examples of Maura’s approach to conjuring up images of food. In the chapter on cakes she invites us to set our sub-conscious to work on any food item until an association has been evoked. She gives several instances of her own association but here are two of my favourites.

BLACK PUDDINGS: To think of these is to think of the Gunner Doyle, an ex-British Army man, who always drank more than was good for him on pension days. On ordinary occasions the Gunner would run from his shadow. His own mother said that in his sober senses he wasn’t fit to wash bibs for babies. When the drink was strong in him he would stand at the pump and roar an invitation to all Ballyderrig to come and be made into puddings.

TOAST: I can’t separate this from Maria Duffy at home in our place who, for fourteen years before God took her, never opened her lips to her husband – and all on the head of a piece of toast. She had a passion for toast. Cake-bread [home-made white soda bread] doesn’t toast well, so when Mrs. Duffy came into town (which she only did once a week for they lived away out in the depths of the bog), she treated herself to a baker’s loaf. Jem Duffy had a passion, too. His was for fishing. Someone told him that loaf bread made grand ground bait. He asked his wife for a slice. She retorted that with only the heel of the loaf to last her until Sunday, she saw no sense in casting her bread upon the water. Jem stole the bread when her back was turned. She never forgave him.

Thank you, Viv, for this treasure

I know I will go back to this book again and again, not for the recipes but for the opportunity to curl up and chuckle away an hour. As Maura says, Ingredients, skill and equipment are not so important to good cooking as a lively interest in human beings.

 

Your Favourite Place for Breakfast in West Cork?

We want to hear from you! A while ago we asked you who makes the best coffee in West Cork – we were astonished at the breadth of choice and the votes that came pouring in. So now we want to know – where can you go in West Cork for a really great breakfast, however you define that?

Robert’s favourite

The wonderful A Taste Of West Cork Festival is on at the moment so we are naturally thinking a lot about food and we wondered about our readers  – are you breakfast people? Is it the Full Irish for you or a modest bowl of cereal? Are you a traditionalist (bacon or nothing!) or quite taken with mashed avocado on sourdough with micro-greens?

I love a good bowl of well-made porridge. 

They say it’s the most important meal of the day and we’re not supposed to skip it.  We agree! In fact, one of our favourite things to do in West Cork is to go out for breakfast. And this being West Cork, we have found lots of places to have delicious choices.

Happy with scones and tea? Upper photo, my own version of pear and almond scones

Brunch is great too – now widely available on weekends all over West Cork. Do you like it more breakfasty or more lunchy? Eggs or soup? How about gathering up the superb ingredients available in our wonderful markets and browsing all afternoon at home?

Upper – a brunch sourced from the markets of West Cork. Lower – we know this place that has the yummiest black pudding potato cakes

Or are you a vegetarian or vegan? Gluten free? If so – what’s your go-to breakfast? Can you find good alternatives when you eat out in West Cork, like that luscious parfait in our lead photograph?

Eggs with lentils – whatever floats your boat!

Coffee or Tea? For us, it has to be a latte or a really good pot of tea, preferably made with leaves (I do hate fishing teabags out of a teapot, especially when there’s never anywhere to put them).

We know there are some grim places too – Lord save me from the breakfast buffet with the emulsified scramblers and the sliced white pan toast. Or the pub that ‘does’ a breakfast where everything comes on a plate swimming in grease. Don’t tell us about those – we know they are out there but we want to hear about your excellent experiences.

Topic: Best Places for Breakfast in West Cork. Discuss!

 

A Taste of West Cork 2017

Young Ambassadors for Gloun Cross Dairy

We have this incredible food festival down here – A Taste of West Cork. I wrote about it in 2014 in this post and in this one. This year it was bigger and better than ever, with an astounding variety of events to choose from. We signed up for something every day and we are now in recovery.

We started off with a Sunday brunch in Glansallagh Gardens, cooked by Chef Bob, in the tractor loft of our old friend Richard, who supplies fresh and delicious vegetables to many local restaurants. Five courses, long harvest tables, strangers from all over chatting amiably, swapping stories and laughter, and then weaving home past the guard geese to snooze away the rest of Sunday.

We love Durrus Cheese and jumped at the chance to attend a demonstration of how it’s made and a tasting. Everything is local, everything is done by hand, the taste comes from years of making and a passion for quality. It felt like a privilege to glimpse behind the scenes.

Sarah, second-generation cheese maker, explains the different processes that produce the Durrus cheeses

The Chestnut Tree was a beloved Ballydehob pub, but it’s been closed for years. Recently, however, it was revived as an Airbnb and during the Festival was re-purposed once again as a restaurant. It worked wonderfully well as a convivial space.

French chef, Antony Cointre, was a popular choice at the Chestnut Tree

We signed up for a Ramen Bowl menu and were not disappointed. Chef Brian from Belfast makes everything – everything – from scratch and showed us how he makes the noodles. To taste his broth is to truly understand the concept of umami.

Our dining partners were Jack and Julia Zagar. Julia is the genius behind the dynamic e-presence of Discover Schull – website, Facebook Page and Instagram account. Jack generously lends his own images to local initiatives

From the Casual, we graduated to the Gracious: dinner at Drishane House was sumptuous. Drishane is the ancestral home of Edith Somerville, now the residence of Tom and Jane Somerville. Jane is a wonderful cook and Tom a genial host, and our fellow guests were a lovely mix of local and from-away. We dined by candlelight surrounded by portraits of Somervilles, wine and conversation flowed, delicious courses kept appearing (all locally sourced as is the ethic of this Festival), and the port and cheese arrived just as we felt that truly an evening could hold no more enjoyment.

Drishane House in the spring, and a portrait of Edith Somerville in her role of Master of the Fox Hounds

By no means is this Festival only about dinners and chefs. We were attracted into Levis’s pub in the early afternoon by the sound of music and found a lively session in full swing – the end of a walking tour of Ballydehob that promised soup (made from vegetables from that morning’s tiny local market) and music as a restorative after the exertions of the walk. Soup was pressed upon us and we didn’t object.

Bob, Liam and Joe entertain the walkers, while Robert has fun with Johanna

Perhaps the most fun we had was also at Levis’s – it was called Sing for your Supper and the idea was to eat and sing, and whoever was judged to be the best singer would win their supper. It was an absolute hoot, with lots of good sports belting out old favourites (I personally led a version of Satisfaction that would curdle milk) and several excellent singers enthralling us all. The food was superb, prepared by an acknowledged top Irish chef, and local man, Rob Krawczyk

Thanks to Colm Rooney of the wonderful local web design agency Cruthu Creative for the photos of Sing for Your Supper. Ah sure, you can’t belt out the numbers and be snapping at the same time, now can you?

We bonded as a table – there were six of us, and we were thrilled to discover the identity of the youngest member. It was Eoin Warner, and if that name means nothing to you, it will one day. Eoin narrated the Irish version of Wild Ireland, Eire Fhiáin, shown to rapturous acclaim on the Irish TV channel. The photography was extraordinary and opened many of our eyes to the wildlife we have here. Forget David Attenborough and the Amazon Jungles – to see a humpback whale bubble-netting up close is to realise how rich the oceans around Ireland are. Here’s an extract from Eire Fhiáin, with Eoin’s lovely, natural, narration and his deep sense of wonder. And – he has a great voice and won the competition!

The photo is from an Independent article that nicely sums up audience reaction to the program

Yesterday we went on a Cultural Taste Tour of Bere Island. It was our first time and it’s no exaggeration to say that we fell in love with it. I won’t say much about it because Robert’s post will fill you in, but I CAN say that we’re already planning our next trip back there.

One of our favourite stalls in the regular Saturday market had also set up in the Street Market – Olives West Cork is our source for excellent olive oil and the best parmesan cheese, as well as an amazing variety of nibbles

The week finished, as it always does, with the Skibbereen Street Market, and I will leave you with a slideshow of this colourful extravaganza.

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Start planning now for next year! Everything books up quite quickly when the program is announced and if you leave it too late there may be no place to stay and no tables left unclaimed. It will be the among the best few days you’ve ever spent!

The Red Line – Bere Island

As part of the excellent Taste of West Cork food festival, we signed up for the Bere Island Cultural Taste Tour, and on a grey Saturday morning we drove off along the south side of the Beara Peninsula to Castletownbere. The Islands of West Cork are all fascinating to explore, in our experience, and each one is very different. This was my first visit to Bere Island, and I immediately want to go back there: this was, of necessity, a ‘whistlestop tour’, ably led by Ted O’Sullivan, probably a direct descendant of the famed O’Sullivan Bere (who deserves – and will get – a post of his own!) You may remember that the island – and the peninsula – has taken its name from the Spanish wife of Owen Mór, King of Ireland around 120AD.

Bere Island lies off the coast of the Beara Peninsula, which was in constant view as our bus took us to the eastern end on the narrow island roads – towards the ‘Red Line’

While the history of the island takes us back to the Bronze Age and beyond, more recent events have been left behind on the landscape – and in the memories of the islanders.

Upper – ancient history: Ardaragh Bronze Age wedge tomb beside the road to the east of the island with Hungry Hill beyond. In 1926 the tomb collapsed, and this was seen by some islanders as a ‘sign’ that the British might leave the occupied part of the island. Lower – modern history: looking from the island towards the Beara – British warships stationed in the bay circa 1914

Did you know that part of Bere Island remained in British hands well beyond the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921? This was one of the three Treaty Ports that were retained by the United Kingdom following the First World War, when there were fears that there might be a recurring naval threat to the islands of Britain and Ireland. The other two ports were Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and Lough Swilly in the far north of the Irish state. Relationships between Ireland and Britain remained uneasy for many years but finally, in 1938, it was agreed that these deepwater ports should be handed over to the Irish Republic. Winston Churchill was appalled by the decision, and in an address to Parliament in that year he called it a ‘folly’:

…When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty who assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered… These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence…

Until the handover in 1938 the eastern end of the island lay beyond ‘The Red Line’. The position of this line was pointed out to us on the tour, although we couldn’t see a ‘line’. In fact, no physical line did ever exist but there was a point beyond which Irish people could not proceed, and British forces stationed over the ‘line’ could not cross. Ted, our tour guide, recounted some amusing stories of those strange times. With typical Irish inventiveness, there were many instances of how the difficulties created by the ‘line’ were overcome. For a short while there was a prison on the British sector, right beside the ‘line’. It was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners. Every weekend there would be a party held on the Irish side of the line which always included singing, dancing and drinking, and the prisoners joined in! Many politically important prisoners managed to escape, and the prison was known as a ‘leaky bucket’ because of this. A number of the British governors of the prison were removed during its short life because of their inability to contain their charges.

Lonehort Battery – built in 1899 by the Royal Engineers of the English army – housed two enormous 6-inch guns (still in place but very rusty) and is surrounded by a deep moat. There are plans to re-open the site as a historic monument

Lonehort is a natural harbour, believed to have been used by the Vikings. Archaeological excavations were carried out there in 1995 and confirmed the artificial breakwater as being Norse: there were also signs of a Viking shipyard here.

Lonehort – a Viking harbour and shipyard. The word means ‘Long Phort’, and is used to indicate Norse associations

One of the purposes of our tour was to introduce us to food produced on the island, and we ate in three establishments: The Shop and Cafe in Rerrin for soup, The Hotel for a fishcake lunch, and the Heritage Centre for a dessert and coffee. All provided good, delicious fare.

Our three food destinations. Top – the wonderful Shop at Rerrin; centre – The Hotel, open all year round (it looks as though it has interesting fare!) and lower – the modern Heritage Centre which has a gallery displaying the island’s history and culture as well as a good eatery

All too soon our short tour came to an end: we had to get back to catch the ferry. We missed several things: St Michael’s Holy Well and Church; views from Knockanallig (the highest point) and several standing stones including Gallán, which is exactly in the centre of the island. And it’s a great place for walking! We will return, perhaps for a few days in the winter, and complete our explorations. But many thanks to Ted and the Bere Island Projects Group for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an intriguing community and its history.

Robert heading home after a grand day out!