I always drift back to Monica Sheridan at Christmas. Ireland’s first TV chef, she lives in the memory for those of us who grew up at the dawning of the television age in Ireland. Her Christmas Cake recipe is a classic and because it is nowhere on the internet, I decided, way back in 2013, to put the whole recipe in a blog post. This actually led me down a rabbit hole because the three posts I have written about Monica Sheridan were published so long ago that they no longer display properly, so I have spent the day updating them. Here is the first post I wrote about her – it was called Monica’s Kitchen and was all about her first cookbook.
And here is the Christmas Cake post. She described it thus: unorthodox, unhygienic, almost improper – but it does work. She’s right – I have made it and it is delicious.
Many of the recipes are the same, but there are significant differences between the Irish and American books. Amusingly, the chapter on ‘Drink’ is re-labelled ‘Beverages.’ All the same colloquial come-here-till-I-tell you chat is here and there’s an introduction by Bob Briscoe, the popular Lord Mayor of Dublin, who can’t resist the Irish-American tropes, saying, Our traditional Irish fare proved itself a boundless source of rugged health and stamina. . . it built the muscles that helped to push the great railroads across the American continent, and the Irish intellects that have adorned the world’s literature. For some reason, the American edition required menus, as if the publisher had said – ‘Yes, but what do the Irish actually eat at a meal?’ Here’s the Christmas dinner menu (with a bonus Expense Account menu delivered with her trademark sense of fun).
I have no idea what creamed potatoes are (mashed with cream?) or why she serves celery twice, the second time ‘curled.’ But this American edition is the only one where she gives a recipe for Mince Pies, so I am including her recipe for Mincemeat, in case there are those of you out there who like to make their own. Other recipes I have consulted call for shredded suet, but Monica keeps it fairly simple, although she does assume you have a mincer. It’s not such a standard piece of kitchen equipment as it used to be, so if you’re not sure what it is, here’s a link. I love her comment on the puddings too!
All our mothers and grandmothers cooked from Monica Sheridan and Maura Laverty‘s cookbooks. Together, these two women dragged Irish cuisine into the 20th century. Oh – yes, there was Theodora FitzGibbon too – well deserving of a future post. That’s my copy of her A Taste of Ireland in the lead photograph. I have several other cookbooks devoted to Irish cooking, from the 60’s to the 90’s. Fillet Sole St Brigid, anyone? Or a nice dish of Sloke?
…Nothing was more natural than the desire to have a ‘last fling’ just before the beginning of Lent. On the Continent of Europe this became a public, communal revel, the carnival, but generally in Ireland the Shrove Tuesday celebration was a household festival with the family and their friends gathered about the fire-side, when the surplus eggs, milk and butter were used up in making pancakes, and even the most thrifty housewife did not object, as otherwise these perishable foodstuffs might go to waste. Some people kept the Christmas holly for the fire which baked the pancakes…
That’s my old friend Kevin Danaher again, reporting on the seasonal customs which we will be celebrating this week, described in The Year in Ireland Mercier Press, 1972. As he points out, the ‘last fling’ in Ireland is tame by comparison with Carnival in other countries, where it really can be the case of A World Turned Upside Down – authority is despatched to the sidelines while fools, mock kings, mock abbots and ‘Lords of Misrule’ conduct the proceedings. Hence the illustrations above, where malevolent hares get their own back on human hunters – and men lay eggs! Both of these are from the marginalia of thirteenth century manuscripts which are teeming with such anarchic visions.
Above – role reversal, a popular feature of carnival customs – and contemporary political upheaval which seems carnivalesque
An 18th century chapbook carries a remarkable and wonderful series of illustrations: The World Turned Upside Down or The Folly of Man, Exemplified in Twelve Comical Relations upon Uncommon Subjects. Here we find ‘the cart before the horse’, ‘children caring for their parents’ and many other thought-provoking reversals.
Back to Danaher:
…In Skibbereen, County Cork, after the fall of darkness on Shrove Tuesday evening the boys of the town amuse themselves by discharging home-made firecrackers. These were made by wrapping gunpowder in paper with a short fuse attached and enclosing the packet in a tight covering of the lead-foil lining of tea chests. Some, even more dangerous, were made from a short length of lead pipe stuffed with powder. These miniature bombs were thrown about the streets, at groups of people, when the sight of the glowing fuse flying through the air was the signal to scatter and run. The bang from these fireworks is said to have been very loud and when thrown at a belated wedding cavalcade, usually caused the horses to bolt, much to the public danger. Towards the end of the last century this custom was finally suppressed by an active police official… (ibid)
John Dunton, an English writer and bookseller, visited Ireland and described various customs he encountered, in Teague Land: or A Merry Ramble to the Wild Irish (1698). Here’s one he observed in Naas, Co Kildare:
…The inhabitants of this place and the neighbourhood have a custom (how begun I could not learn) on Shrove Tuesday to meet on horseback in the fields, and wherever they spy a hare in her form, they make as wide a circle as the company can and the ground will permit, and someone is sent in to start poor puss, who cannot turn herself any way but she is repulsed with loud cries and so frightened that she falls dead in the magical circle, though sometimes she breaks through and escapes; if a greyhound or any other dog be found in the field, it is a thousand to one she loses her life; and thus after they have shouted two or three hares to death they disperse…
Hardly surprising, then, that the hares in the 13th century manuscript marginalia should want to get their revenge… And, unhappily, an evolution of this same barbarous sport, now under the name of ‘hare coursing’ is still permitted in Ireland! We live in a topsy turvy world, indeed.
Amhlaoibh Ó Suilleabháin, the schoolmaster of Callan, Co Kilkenny reported a similarly unsavoury Shrove Tuesday custom in 1831:
…To-day is the day when cocks were pelted. It was a barbarous trick. The poor cock was tied to a post or a stone by a hard hemp cod, and sticks were thrown at it. He who killed it became owner of it. A penny was wagered on every shot. Recently this custom has receeded. I have not seen it for thirty years. It was an English custom…
Good to know that we can at least blame the English for that! Cock-throwing was also noted in the three volume Guide to Ireland published between 1841-1843 by Samuel Carter Hall (1800-1889), and his wife Anna Maria (1800-1881) …The day for this sport was Shrove Tuesday, a day which is still dedicated to games and amusements far less cruel and irrational… They went on to describe and illustrate pastimes more familiar to us.
…The family group – and the “boys and girls” of the neighbours – gather round the fireside; and each in turn tries his or her skill in tossing the pancake. The tossing of the first is always alloted to the eldest unmarried daughter of the host, who performs the task not altogether without trepidation, for much of her “luck” during the year is supposed to depend on her good or ill success on the occasion. She tosses it, and usually so cleverly as to receive it back again on its surface, on its reverse, in the pan. Congratulations upon her fortune go round, and another makes the effort: perhaps this is a sad mischance; the pancake is either not turned or falls among the turf ashes; the unhappy maiden is then doomed – she can have no chance of marrying for a year at least – while the girl who has been lucky is destined to have her “pick of the boys” as soon as she likes…
Last year I decided to make Christmas cake according to Monica Sheridan’s recipe, which I remembered from my childhood. A comment from a reader got me curious about her other Christmas recipes and I got out my dog-eared copy of My Irish Cook Book to look up how to make a traditional plum pudding. Fatal mistake! Instead of cracking eggs and and soaking fruit I have been chuckling over the book and insisting that Robert listens as I read bits out loud.
I have already posted about Monica’s Kitchen and the delights it contains. The audience for that book was the modern Irish home cook (assumed to be female) of the 1960s. My Irish Cook Book focuses on traditional Irish foods and recipes. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients and fairly simple cooking methods – the kind of thing we call Slow Food nowadays. But because it’s about Irish food it is also an extended piece of nostalgia, replete with dewy-eyed memories of her childhood and her trademark stories and trenchant wit.
The book starts with an essay on the cooking traditions of her family, from her great-grandmother cooking stews in a bastable oven over an open fire, to her grandmother (who actually had running water from a tap!) to her mother who continued to churn her own butter, cure her own bacon, bake her own bread and make the most outlandish hats with feathers purloined from the cock.
The photographs above and below, by the way, are from my own copy of the book A Taste of Ireland by Theodora FitzGibbon – a book that deserves its own post one day. The photo above is labelled A traditional Irish Kitchen, about 1888, and the one below is of the ancestral home of US President William McKinley in Co Antrim.
Her soup chapter begins thus:
The Geography we learn at school tells us that Ireland has a moderate climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream without any great variations of temperature either in summer or winter. This is a flagrant piece of Celtic exaggeration…
You wouldn’t be long in Ireland before realising that soup is an essential part of our daily fare. Like whiskey it is our internal central heating, raising the temperature of the body and thawing out the gastric juices so that they will be receptive to the delights that are to follow. Remember, in Ireland, except in the cities, domestic central heating is still a rarity (we are a credulous people and believe what we read in the geography books). We need soup to warm us.
This chapter includes instructions for making a Nettle Tonic. This essentially involves boiling a pound of young nettles in water. Strain and drink a tumblerful, hot or cold, first thing in the morning. Guaranteed to put roses in your cheeks and a glint in your eye. Not pleasant, of course, but you must suffer to be beautiful.
This is the same pre-feminist era woman of Monica’s Kitchen: she gives the following directions for serving steak and fried onions.
Carve the steak by cutting it in thick slices along the grain of the meat. Give a good slice of the fillet to your most important male guest (all men are knowledgeable about steak – all that expense-account eating, I’m sure) and never you mind about his wife. The chances are she is so delighted to be away from her own kitchen stove she won’t mind what she gets.
There are lots of recipes for offal, and indeed as children we ate lots of organ meats – although I drew the line at tripe and my mother finally relented after an epic battle of wills. Kidneys, tongue, liver, sweetbreads, heads, brains, cheeks…all get a look in.
Traditional Cork Christmas Meats at the English Market
Some Cork specialties get special attention, like Skirts and Bodices. Bodices are pickled spareribs because they are like the boned bodices our grandmothers wore and skirts are the fluted trimmings that are cut away from the pork steak. Drisheens sound, er, appetising: They are made from sheep’s blood. In appearance they resemble a blown-up bicycle tyre, but they have a wonderful texture, like baked egg custard. Serve with butter, she recommends, flavoured with tansy. Crubeens, meanwhile, are pigs’ trotters. Crubeens should always be eaten with your fingers. They lose half of their magic if you attack them with a refined knife and fork. You will need a bath afterwards, of course, but their sweet savour is well worth the extra ablution.
She finishes the pork section with the following: I will tell you an interesting thing about ham. The true ham epicure will always look for the left ham of a pig. It is considered more tender and delicate. You see, the pig scratches himself with the right leg and consequently exercises it far more. So now you know!
There are many recipes for poultry, some of which involve boiling the fowl, or, in the case of Uncle George’s Turkey, injecting cream into the breast with a syringe. Chickens, of course, must be young – a digression is called for: Describing a woman of certain age, my mother would often say, “She wouldn’t tear in the plucking” (young birds have very delicate skin that breaks easily with inept plucking) or, “A chicken of her age wouldn’t fall off the roost.” Mother had a tongue that would clip a hedge.
Monica in 1968, from the Australian Womens’ Weekly
When Monica talks about a soufflé (although she doesn’t provide a recipe) she says, it should rise gradually, like a careful civil servant, consolidating its position on the way up. She devotes five pages to talking about soda bread before she even gets to a recipe for it. But that recipe is one I used often, when I lived in Canada, before the days of the internet opened up a world of online recipes. I can attest that it’s a good one.
But, like Monica, I digress – my intention was to give her recipe for plum pudding. Alas, it is hardly a recipe – little more than a list of ingredients followed by instructions to mix it all together, put into greased pudding dishes, and boil for 5 hours. Like many of her recipes, it calls for booze – in this case a glass of whiskey (she has a whole chapter on ‘Drink’). So instead of detailing how to make the plum pudding I will leave you with her approach to serving it.
The most exciting thing about a plum pudding is the presentation. To capture the spirit of Christmas it must come to the table lapped in blue flames – and this can be quite tricky with the weak quality of booze nowadays. When I was young we always doused the pudding in poteen and you got a flame that would singe the rafters. To make sure of a good flame it is most important to warm the spirit (cheap brandy is better than whiskey) before pouring it over the pudding.
If you want to make a spectacular entrance to the dining-room with the flaming pudding held on high, this is what you do. Scoop out a hole in the top of the pudding and place half and empty upturned eggshell in the hole. Fill the shell with warmed brandy, ignite and move the dish to spill out the spirit as you enter the dining-room.*
In preparing this post I looked up lots of plum pudding recipes, then decided to buy one from my favourite market stall. But if you really want to make a traditional Irish one, Brenda Costigan’s mother’s recipe, from the Independent, looks like a wonderful, rich, boozy pudding that would have done Monica proud.
*Disclaimer: Roaringwater Journal will not be responsible for house fires caused by following these directions.
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